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Manchester theatre reviews

Brief Encounter at The Lowry

By Emma Rice, adapted from the Noel Coward film

Reviewed by John Waterhouse February 2018


This is a show which can truly be described as a real treat encompassing catchy period music, amazing physical effects, stunning multi-media production and a strong cast. It also pays homage to both a classic British film and one of our most enduringly popular playwrights. Writer/Director Emma Rice has done a most excellent job in taking a classic film and moving it to a new era whilst never losing sight of the original.


This production of Brief Encounter presents a something problem to reviewers because there are several artistic effects which really deserve special mention but to do so would give spoilers to what are otherwise genuine surprises. It certainly has for me - the most powerful and creative images I have ever seen, with many clever and at times, jaw-dropping twists.


It is also hard to pin down in genre; it is certainly a musical and to some extent an actor/musician show but it is also a farce which somehow never ridicules the original subject matter and remains faithful to the period throughout. It is perhaps a nit pic that there are a few images of the Second World whereas as Brief Encounter is set in 1939, the year the then Prime Minister promised ‘Peace in our time’ but the overall atmosphere is of two care free lovers, who certainly don’t have an impending war on their minds.


Brief Encounter is not typical territory for Noel Coward. His best known plays, such as ‘Hay Fever’ or ‘Present Laughter’, tend to be about the idle rich obsessing about romance whilst leading frivolous lives. This story is very much about busy working people who use public transport to get around, and are already in committed relationships at a time when divorce was widely considered shameful.


Brief EncounterIn this respect, the show presents a genuine time capsule, showing not just the repression of emotions more prevalent at that time, but also both the deferential attitudes and comradery of the working class in pre-war Britain. Married life is also presented as more austere and formal than today. The costuming, settings and props carried the period through to perfection, and frequent musical interludes from the ensemble cast prevent Brief Encounter ever being just a staged rendition of the popular film.


The essential story is of course a romance between ‘Laura’ played by Isabel Pollen and ‘Alec’ played by Jim Sturgeon. Neither tried to present impressions of the actors in the original film, respectively Celia Johnson or Trevor Howard, but instead are their own characters, whilst retaining all the dynamics which make the story so powerfully enduring. There is real drama as we see their chance meeting develop into serious feelings which makes the more comedic elements of the play all the more powerful, as Brief Encounter constantly shifts in mood between black and white.


There are questions which Brief Encounter provokes for audiences today. In 1945 when the film was released, the forbidden love aspect perhaps echoed Noel Coward’s inner feelings, in a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence, but today there are other issues not least of which is whether Alec might be viewed as predatory in the light of the #metoo movement. There is also Laura’s situation - trapped in a repressive mother/wife situation, raising comparisons as to how much women really have moved on in levels of independence seventy years on. However, questions aside, Brief Encounter will leave you with much to remember; a real spectacle of all round entertainment.


Brief Encounter is on at The Lowry until Saturday 24th February.

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