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Theater Review: “Brief Encounter” at Shakespeare Theatre

British company Kneehigh’s multimedia production is an extravaganza of charm and whimsy.

Joe Alessi as Albert, Annette McLaughlin as Mrytle, Jim Sturgeon as Alec, and Hannah Yelland as Laura in Brief Encounter.

The extramarital love affair between Alec and Laura in 1945’s Brief Encounter has always been one of the 20th century’s iconic cinematic romances (burnished amply by the thumping melodrama of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2), but what’s remarkable about it from a 21st-century perspective is how slight it is. Not chaste, although it’s mostly that, too, but flimsy—more an expression of two dissatisfied people finding they’re free to be themselves when they’re with each other than an epic conflagration of emotional intensity.

Kneehigh, a Cornish theater company from the UK, presents its thrilling, endlessly creative production of Brief Encounter at Shakespeare Theatre through April 13, having already staged the show at several stops across the world, including a well-received run in New York. Hannah Yelland, who most recently starred at Shakespeare in the company’s stellar A Winter’s Tale, reprises her Tony-nominated role as Laura, a middle-class housewife who happens to meet a dashing doctor, Alec (Jim Sturgeon), at a railway station. The setting, where much of the show’s action takes place, is apt—what better metaphor could there be for a frenzy of different options and chance opportunities, all heightened by the urgency of time?

Brief Encounter was itself based on Noël Coward’s 1938 short play Still Life, and Kneehigh’s production cleverly incorporates both works, using the medium of black-and-white cinema and a number of theatrical tricks to envelop the audience in the action. We’re in the cinema as the show opens, surrounded by a number of in-character ushers who continually shush Alec when he despairingly tells Laura that he’s fallen in love with her. Laura’s husband, Fred (Joe Alessi), talks to her from inside the film projected onto a white backdrop. To say more would spoil the surprise, but director and adapter Emma Rice manages to find a way to fuse cinema and theater that’s totally ingenious (the film scenes are by Gemma Carrington and John Driscoll).

Also ingenious, although at times it edges toward distracting, is the way Rice pads out the slender scenes between Alec and Laura with vintage songs written by Coward and performed by two musicians (Dave Brown and James Gow) and a handful of actors. Each number considers love, but in a very different way, whether it’s the prim mistress of the station tea counter, Myrtle Baggott (Annette McLaughlin), bemoaning how she’s no good at love or her saucy employee, Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), crooning how mad she is about the boy while draped seductively around a double bass.

The most affecting is when Beryl’s paramour, Stanley (Damon Daunno), sings, “Go Slow, Johnny” while Alec and Laura are tentatively removing their clothes after having fallen in a lake. Daunno, the lone American among the cast, may not quite nail the Cockney accent, but the way he languorously drawls and plays the ukelele while curled up on a piece of scenery like the man in the moon makes for one of the show’s most emotionally profound moments.

Other devices Rice uses to add dimension to the show include some enthralling trickery with trains, using first the actors, then props, then finally film footage to convey the loud discombobulation of an express going past. There are also moments in which fantasy takes over, as when Alec and Laura, on their first illicit date, appear to be swimming together in a vast glass of Champagne, with the bubbles projected onto the stage’s backdrop. The production uses puppets to portray Laura and Fred’s two children, which is endearing but, like much of the other magical realism within the show, perhaps detracts a little from the intensity of the love affair.

Yelland is infinitely magnetic as Laura, and Rice wisely makes the most of her photogenic features by transferring them onto the big screen behind the stage several times. Yelland communicates Laura’s unhappiness with a palpable sense of hurt, and deftly portrays the guilt she feels at leading something of a double life. Sturgeon as Alec is blandly handsome and agreeably charming, but his character ultimately lacks the dimensionality to truly be compelling—beyond the fact that he’s a doctor with a wife and two sons, thanks to the play’s slim origins, we find out very little about him.

Still, Brief Encounter is a satisfying 90 minutes, thanks both to the skilled performances from the cast (Mrs. Baggott’s fake bottom deserves a credit of its own) and the sheer inventiveness with which Rice and Kneehigh approach theater. This is the kind of show that tests the boundaries of what can be done on a stage, and makes you wonder why more productions aren’t as imaginative.

Brief Encounter is at Shakespeare Theatre through April 13. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($30 to $75) are available at Shakespeare’s website.