Review by Tulis McCall
(28 Sep 2010)
Before you read this, go online, or go to the phone or go to Studio 54’s Box office and get a ticket. Just do it. And don’t make me come over there!
This production of Brief Encounter is a transplant from the UK’s Kneehigh Theatre. The program states “Kneehigh tells stories. It makes world-class theatre.” This would be cheeky, were it not true.
Emma Rice has taken this magical almost folk tale of a story and imbedded it with fireworks. Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Tristan Surrock) meet in one of those little teashops at a railway station. It is 1938. War is on its way, but there is still time for people to travel about by train and encounter one another in all the ways that the word implies.
When Laura gets a bit of cinder in her eye while waiting on the platform, it is to the tea shop she dashes where she meets Alec who happens to be a doctor and is therefore qualified and equipped with a magic handkerchief. Out comes the cinder and in goes Cupid’s arrow. It happens that quickly – and if you’re old enough to read this it has happened to you.
What follows is the tale. And this tale takes on grand proportions, becoming the eye of a great theatrical hurricane that is maintained by seven spectacular performers. Myrtle Baggot (Annette McLaughlin) runs the teashop where the trysts begin, and manages it with an iron fist when she is not otherwise occupied with Albert Godby (Joseph Alessi) the ticket inspector. Myrtle employees Beryle (Dorothy Atkinson) and Stanley (Gabriel Ebert) are alternately serving customers and fooling about with romance. So while Alec and Laura are falling in love they are surrounded by the same on all fronts. This is a love cornucopia.
Of course, naught will come of our main couple because they are married and proper and must do what is right. They will, however, journey to the very edge of the cliff before turning back. On the journey they will meet other travelers brilliantly played by this cast, all of whom take on multiple roles. Therein lies the tale and the invitation for us to take the trip with them.
Rice has expanded this journey with video – Laura and Alec can move from stage to screen – and added music. All the songs are by Noel Coward, and some feature the music of Stu Barker. Each is given a new light in which to shine as it shapes the story. And each is accompanied by the members of the ensemble who sometimes perform and other times serenade the scene. I will never hear Mad About The Boy again without thinking of Atkinson’s duet with bassist Elbert, and Damon Daunno’s rendition of Go Slow, Johnny was breathtaking. Daunno’s voice is exquisite, and he could have walked away with the scene, but it is a testament to this entire production that he chose instead to use his voice to take care of the performers.
That is the deal with this company. It is a true ensemble who sing, dance, climb, swing, play instruments, manipulate puppets and run scenery – all the while devoting themselves to the story at hand. While it is a story about two people, as told by Kneehigh it becomes a microcosm of the world.
Brief Encounter swoops you into its arms and carries you into the fierce storm of love until you are drenched. Two people commit to an adventure. What will happen? It is as simple and as complicated as that. It is the exact epicenter of story. We go to the theatre hoping to rediscover that epicenter, and occasionally we do.
This is one of those occasions. This is what theatre was meant to do. Bravo. Drinks all around.
"Surely the most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Laura and Alec's romance seems to get swallowed up. It feels a little off."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Should make all but the sourest puss believe in romance again. It's a spirited charm offensive that's just impossible to resist."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"To think that this farrago received critical encomia in various venues!"
John Simon for Bloomberg
"An exhilarating reminder of why I fell in love with the theater in the first place."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"A terrific night in the theater"
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"A beautifully touching piece of theatre."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Mocks the subtle essence of Coward's work while presumably paying homage to it."
Michael Summers for Newsroom Jersey
"Xxhilarating multimedia adaptation."
Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter
"Production uses ingenious theatricality to combine a dollop of nostalgia, a dose of sentiment and a scent of satire into a frothy mix."
Steven Suskin for Variety