Considering it’s been around since 1945, it’s a disgrace that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have ever properly watched the film of Brief Encounter. It’s one of those hardy perennials that always emerges at Christmas on some minor TV channel or other. If you notice it in the listings you say to yourself “not that old thing again” and so you don’t watch it, forgetting the fact that you never actually did in the first place. I have, now, seen some of the opening credits, and the final credit, as they frame this production of Emma Rice’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s classic. I’ve also seen some gems of adverts that are shown as a curtain raiser – it’s worth taking your seat early so that you can enjoy them. I distinctly remember the early days of Quosh but have no memory at all of Cephos Powder. And I’d forgotten all about Midland Counties Ice Cream.
Of course, those portentous black and white meetings between Celia Johnson (whom I actually saw on stage in 1972) and Trevor Howard (whom I didn’t) are about as iconic as you can get, an embodiment of wartime stiff upper lip, reserved passion and a regretful acceptance of a less than satisfactory status quo. Showing this classic on the tiny stage of the Northampton Playhouse by a company of non-professionals is, what I believe to be the correct term, A Big Ask. But I was really impressed at the ambition and realisation of the technicality of the project, and overall it worked extremely well.
The cast and creative team have gone to town on creating the illusion of a 1945 cinema; in fact, the whole performance is a blend of live theatre and film recreating the outside world. Immaculately coiffured with 1940s hairdos, usherettes with torches control the auditorium, trying to shush our loving couple as they have an awkward contretemps during the Big Feature. At the interval, meat paste sandwiches and Banbury buns are on offer. There’s also a raffle – we won a box of chocolates, so bang goes the post-Christmas diet – again. Specially recorded black and white film sequences show our hero and heroine sat miserably on their trains home; they also beckon a steam train onto the stage or off into the distance; backdrop projections suggest the railway station’s café, or the almost-posh hotel restaurant, where ladies who lunch, lunch. Film also enables conversations between Laura and her kids, spiffingly well played by young Will Foreman and Casey O’Sullivan.
Having read the synopsis of the film, it seems to me that the adaptation reflects the original pretty faithfully, with the inclusion of a few spirited additions. Stanley, the station dogsbody, and Beryl, the tea room assistant, break through the fourth wall to give us a few reprises of Any little fish can swim, a Noel Coward song from the 1931 Cochran Revue. Myrtle Bagot, the café proprietor, and Beryl give us separate renditions of the famous Mad About the Boy, another Coward hit, from the 1932 show Words and Music. In a production that, by necessity, has a number of relatively slow scene changes (mainly due to the size of the stage), having these interludes is a great way to disguise what’s going on behind the curtain; a song and dance version of a stately swan whose grace and elegance you notice without ever knowing that his feet are going nineteen to the dozen to keep him afloat. Very nicely done.
At the heart of the play – and indeed heart being the operative word – are the loving twosome of Mary O’Brien and Jof Davies as Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey. They both portray that sense of struggling against one’s better nature extremely well, and they both absolutely look the part. Mr Davies perfectly captured the embarrassment of being caught almost in flagrante by his work colleague at his flat – a delightfully toe-curling scene; and I found his sense of resignation at the end – just being able to put his hand on Laura’s shoulder whilst her irritating friend natters on in complete ignorance – very moving. Ms O’Brien’s clarity of diction is a thing of beauty which really helped her rich characterisation of the troubled Laura. She also shone during those embarrassed meetings with acquaintances who could clearly gauge precisely what was going on, despite which, with true decency, she doesn’t tell any lies.
I very much enjoyed the partnership of April Pardoe as Myrtle and Helen Kennedy as Beryl, sparring in the café; Ms Pardoe’s slightly haughty portrayal of the café owner reminded me a little of the late Doris Speed who used to play Annie Walker in Coronation Street. I was very amused by them both manhandling all the buns and then offering them to the front row. Ms Kennedy’s visual asides at Myrtle’s hectoring were very enjoyable, as were her constant attempts to get away with murder – but Ms Pardoe was having none of it, and quite right too, the young people of today… etc, etc & etc. Adding to this jolly menage a trois is Adrian Wyman as Albert Godby, the stationmaster whose pea in his whistle is aimed firmly at Myrtle. Mr Wyman draws out all the fun of the character as he chisels away at Myrtle’s frosty front until at last, in the immortal words of Daft Punk, he’s up all night to Get Lucky. Gordon Ritchie gives a spirited, cheeky-chappie performance as the impetuous Stanley, and I really liked Beverley Webster’s socially confident and thoroughly insensitive Dolly Messiter, ruining Laura and Alec’s passionate goodbye by dumping her shopping all over their table.
In two very amusing vignettes, Ingrid Heymann plays the waitress at the restaurant, teetering on the edge of the stage, precariously balancing two bowls of soup (I’m sure the gentleman next to me who couldn’t resist call out “two soups!” wasn’t the only person this week to have that thought), reflecting the generosity of her patrons’ tips with either a sneer or a surprised pleasure. In another funny scene, Simon Rye and Kevin Evans play Johnnie and Bill, a couple of soldier vagabonds with good-time girls on their arms, arguing the toss with an unflinching Mrs Bagot. Mr Evans threw himself wholeheartedly into his role as a loutish military roué under the influence of a pint of cider. It’s a character part.
Congratulations to the excellent cast who were word perfect throughout and worked together seamlessly. Mrs C has a low threshold to amateur dramatics, but she left the theatre with a spring in her step, which is a Very Good Sign. It’s a slightly quirky adaptation that I think would appeal to both purists and avant-garde alike. Performances run till Saturday but if you haven’t booked already, then I think you may have left it too late.