— Eric Blais and Mairi Babb star in Noël Coward's Brief Encounter. Photo by David Cooper
Brief Encounter is a strange and brilliant concoction, a theatrical mash-up that drove me crazy in places but finally won me over—almost entirely—through the sheer force of its relentless cleverness, talented cast and dazzling effects. Director Max Reimer describes it as “a classical story wrapped in contemporary theatrical invention.” I resented a little how all that invention detracted from the riveting classical story at its centre.
The play’s title is taken from the 1946 movie version of Coward’s 1936 one-act play Still Life, the melodramatic story of an illicit love affair between two married people. Laura and her dentist lover, Alec, meet in a tea shop in a railway station. In English director Emma Rice’s adaptation, the story segues back and forth between live action and film—a hybrid genre we’ve seen numerous times recently at the Arts Club—with filmic backgrounds sometimes used as expressionistic devices: huge waves break on the screen as the theatrical lovers’ repressed passion boils within them.
At the same time Rice has turned the other characters in the railway station—the tea shop proprietress, the stationmaster, a waitress and her boyfriend—into musical hall characters, playing instruments, breaking into songs (mostly Coward’s own), often watching and providing vocal background to the central lovers (as they undress for their first sexual encounter, the chorus sings to them a carefully measured version of Coward’s “Go Slow, Johnny”), and sometimes manipulating them like puppeteers. Life-size bunraku-style puppets are cleverly brought into play as Laura’s children. Stylized comic chaos ensues.
It’s very hard to know how much of the non-stop shtick comes from Rice’s adapted script and how much is original to Reimer’s Playhouse/Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production, but a great deal of it is enormously clever and hugely impressive. The design team of Alan Brodie (set and lights), Sheila White (costumes), Lucas Cooper (sound) and Deco Dawson (projections) gets full marks for combining a period look with some remarkable coups de théâtre, many having to do with the trains that regularly punctuate the action. At one point near the end an actor runs across the stage trailing a screen on which a racing locomotive is projected in a breathtaking effect.
The performers in the surrounding story are consistently terrific: Lucia Frangione and Rachel Aberle are hilarious as the tea-shop women (Aberle, handling the broad comedy with aplomb, at one point seems to channel a young Nicky Cavendish), Charlie Gallant as a young beau providing some musical highlights, Jonathan Holmes giving dignity to the husband in Laura’s passionless marriage. Steve Charles (also musical director), Blair Northwood and Alison Jenkins round out the chorus, playing a variety of characters and musical instruments.
But what gripped me the most were the lovers, Eric Blais’ Dr. Harvey and especially Mairi Babb’s lovely lacerated Laura, torn apart by her conflicting feelings of passion and desire, guilt and regret. They share none of the tra-la-la irony of the surrounding characters; their affair is dead serious. But who trusts a contemporary audience to be satisfied with serious melodramatic characters who ultimately choose self-denial?