In London Noël Coward’s “Brief Encounter” Maintains Its Ambition

Ambition counts for a lot in my book. Working with the much loved Noël Coward production this musical works to blend the cinematic within a live stage production. But it also attempts to blend vaudeville humor with some mounting passion. It works brilliantly at times, but at other times the juxtaposition is too glaring.

Had the starcrossed lovers not engaged in the humour presented by the rest of the cast, their dilemma may have been more starkly presented. Theirs is one of three affairs juggled in the production, with the latter two affairs in the shadow cast by the spotlight of the two strong lead characters.

The stage design by Neil Murray is a remarkable shifting between a train platform, a living room and the seaside. Use of black and white cinema-style moving images is integrated and delivered effectively.

Notably powerful are the two lead actors’ ability to portray their blossoming affection for each other in a well-balanced way. Isabel Pollen plays Laura, a housewife who bumps into Alec, a married doctor performed admirably by Jim Sturgeon. Both characters are in relatively comfortable situations, clearly trapped by the conventional morality of the day precluding anything further. But their relationship evolves. When the inevitable briefness of their affair becomes evident, their conflicted emotions ring true.

Coward wrote the play as a thinly-veiled reference to his life as a gay man likewise constrained in expressing his true emotional feelings. Although Laura will likely undergo a rebirth by discovering her love of the piano and Alec will fulfill his dream of working in Africa, Coward knew his fate was far less optimistic. Coward was involved in the subsequent 1945 film, directed by David Lean. In dealing with a relationship outside marriage, the production faced headwinds from the British Board of Film Censors. The film garnered kudos and a clutch of awards at Cannes and the Academy Awards. NBC Television years later presented an adaptation with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton.

Emma Rice ably adapted and directed the production. Rice workshopped the production in the idyllic artistic seaside village of Cornwall. In the time since its 2007 debut, the production has been tightened up, toured the USA, UK and Australia and remained compelling.

The songs are culled from other works by Noël Coward. The clever musical interludes become integral to the action and in lesser skilled hands the musical performances would have been intrusive. Other than a brief and someone anachronistic use of an electric guitar and vocal echo effect, the music is rendered in an acoustic style appropriate to the British 1938 setting.

By staging the production at a movie theater (the famous Empire Cinema in London, which started life as the Carlton Theatre), the effect overall is intriguing and satisfying.

In the end, it is clear that Noël Coward has written a work that can ambitiously be produced across a range of media.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.