Review – Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter – Kneehigh Theatre at The Cinema Haymarket

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(This, my favorite show of 2008, is now in New York City at Studio 54. Both The New York Times and blogger Steve On Broadway love this show – don’t miss it!)

Several months ago I heard about a unique hybrid production of the movie of Brief Encounter and the play that inspired it (Still Life), presented in the cinema where the movie premiered back in the day (restored to its glory for the show). I was intrigued but held off going so that I could attend with a gaggle of my friends. Time passed, the event hadn’t been organized, and my uncle was in town looking for a show to fill the slot on Sunday (which in London means slim pickins, no doubt about it). Torn between seeing an opera none of us had much of an interest in and a show that I personally was quite interested in, based on a movie my uncle loved, it wasn’t too hard to make the argument for skipping Covent Garden in favor of the Cinema Haymarket.

And what a good choice it was! Brief Encounter is pure theatrical magic. I can hardly sing its praises highly enough. In part, I think, I just didn’t know what to expect – I thought it was going to be people performing the dialogue in front of a movie screen. This did happen – for about the first five minutes of the show … but as it was performed, two of the actors were in the audience, and one of the “actors” was on the screen, addressing one of the people in the audience – so it was completely unlike the audience participation version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was kind of what I thought the show was going to be like.

Instead, what we got was a full-fledged multi-media show with just that clip of film as its basis, with live music and multi-tasking character actors (a cast of eight, I think?) that occasionally sang and danced and even bounced up and down in unison to indicate the passage of a train. Our star-crossed lovers, Laura (Naomi Frederick) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock) plunged into it all whole-heartedly, taking us on a boating trip, dancing in the air with joy, being kind and thoughtful to each other, and falling in love in most heart-rending fashion.

Meanwhile the rest of the brilliant cast was hamming it up in a variety of roles my uncle claimed saw little screen time in the original, but which added a lot of texture (in the form of two other love affairs) and provided the opportunity for all sorts of hijinks. It all ended in a fairly melancholy way, but we were so energized from the rest of the show, who could care? And as to the (American) woman in the bathroom who said that she didn’t remember Brief Encounter being a comedy – I say, you make a show that works in the medium you’re using, and this was a brilliant piece of theater.

My uncle, who’s retired, said Brief Encounter was worth paying full price to see – and considering he paid for three tickets, I consider that quite a compliment. (The matinee wasn’t available at the TKTS booth, although it often is for evening shows.) Also, after seeing four plays in four days (six for him), we all agreed that this was the best of the bunch – the icing on the cake for his trip to London. For me, it’s the best play I’ve seen in at least three months, possibly the year to date, and the only one that I’d go see again.

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5 Responses to “Review – Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter – Kneehigh Theatre at The Cinema Haymarket”

  1. Great deal on Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” at the Haymarket « Webcowgirl’s Weblog Says:

    […] one free) for Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” at the Cinema Haymarket, one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. The deal is “two top price tickets for £39.50,” and, hey, if you get lucky […]

  2. Sally Says:

    I am sorry, I just have to disagree. I went to see it last night and thought it was so bad that I left in the interval. I am 27 and I think the jokes are outdated and is the sort of slapstick humour that people in the 30’s enjoyed before they were able to express themselves sexually. The love story was under dialogued and unconvincing. I am sure the problem was not the production or the cast but Noel Coward and his antiquated humour.

  3. Monty Says:

    Sally’s comment typifies the cynical attitude of todays ‘yoof’. If one can’t enjoy a cucumber sandwich and a good old ‘knees up’ then whats the world coming to? I suspect the real reason you left at the interval was that the show was just too downright saucy for you Sally.

  4. Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008 « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] in spades. (For a long time it looked like it was going to be the theatrical magic of “Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter” that took the prize, but Deanna Dunagan just blew me out of the […]

  5. Review – Hansel and Gretel – Kneehigh Theatre at Queen Elizabeth Hall « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] Theatre is responsible for one of the best shows I’ve seen since I moved to London, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, and while the next show I saw them do (Don John) seemed very unfinished and unsatisfying, I […]

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