“‘T’is better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all” has never been more fun than in “Brief Encounter”, the beloved film’s stage production that embraces vaudeville and acrobatic antics now at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The would-be lovers in the Noël Coward work pop up in the audience, then magically disappear through a movie screen, and instantaneously re-appear in a film clip projected onto a silver screen.
They also swing on chandeliers, and dance on chairs.
The two other couples double as a burlesque-esque song and dance group. They warble Coward ditties like “Mad About the Boy”, “Go Slow, Johnny”, “No Good at Love”, and “Room with A View”. These are augmented by original tunes by Stu Barker set to Sir Noël’s ever so clever lyrics.
One of the women even tosses a couple of sticky-buns to the audience, and another delivers a bag of popcorn. These cockneyish couples are rather like English pearlie buskers without the pearls.
This production, by Kneehigh of Cornwall, England, spoofs yet honors “Brief Encounter”, the 1945 movie David Lean-directed movie (trailer). Noël Coward wrote the screenplay based on his one-act play “Still Life”. Life is anything but still in this often zany adaptation by Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, who also directed the show.
In case anyone doesn’t know the plot, here ‘t is: A middle-class, ordinary, married-with-children woman and man encounter each other briefly at a train station when the housewife gets a bit of true grit in her eye and the gentleman, a doctor, no less, removes it. They fall in love, almost consummate their affair — stiff upper lip — and then part in such sweet sorrow.
Ah, “but we’ll always have the pictures,” says Alec (Jim Sturgeon), in one of many winking references to films like “Casablanca”. Alec is no Rick and Jim’s no Humphrey — or Trevor Howard as the divine love lead in “Brief Encounter”, but Sturgeon is mighty fine.
“I’m a happily married woman. Or rather I was until a few weeks ago. This is my whole world and it’s enough, or rather it was until a few weeks ago,” says Laura (Hannah Yelland), the lovely who’s as winsome as was the film’s Laura (Celia Johnson).
Dorothy Atkinson (Beryl and two other characters) and Joe Alessi (Fred and Albert) are triple and double standouts, respectively. Atkinson sparks the biggest of all the laughs as a Hermione Gingold-like old biddy who happens upon the secret couple. And at the end, Atkinson plays a meddlesome woman swathed in furs, feathers, and herself, who intrudes upon the lovers’ last goodbye.
Speaking of intrusion, two long film clips of a swimmer, although so sensuous, distract and detract from the otherwise seamless interweaving of cinema and stage.
Let’s hear it for the puppets, especially the pooches, designed and made by Lyndie Wright, and trained by Sarah Wright.
“Surely the most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie,” swooned “New York Times” critic Ben Brantley during its 2010 Broadway run.
It was nominated for two Tony® Awards. (The Shakespeare Theatre Company has its own Tony — the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award.)
Tony-nominated Hannah Yelland in the final scene is seen/heard playing the passionate Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, the love theme throughout the movie. (Watch/hear Sergei Rachmaninoff himself playing its first movement; better than hearing Sinatra sing the adaptation “Full Moon and Empty Arms”.)
A final screen close-up shows a single tear flowing down Yelland’s impossibly high cheekbone.
The tear-jerker sentimental movie, one of the greatest film romances ever, has been transformed into a farcical romp.
Purists may think ‘T is better to have seen only the film. May ‘Tennyson and Kneehigh forgive me.
The standing-o audience welcomed the “blithe spirit” added to these “private lives”. But “I’ll leave it to you”.
For more info: “Brief Encounter”, through April 13 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., Box office 202-547-1122 or toll-free 877-487-8849. Here’s the trailer. Noël Coward’s “Private Lives” begins May 29 at the Lansburgh.