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Brief Encounter at The Lowry Theatre

Sarah Tierney enjoys this comedy version of the weepie classic

Published on March 25th 2009.

Brief Encounter at The Lowry Theatre

Kneehigh Theatre, who created this much-praised production of Brief Encounter, are renowned for doing things differently. So theatre-goers expecting to have their heart strings tugged by their version of the 1940s film about a painfully impossible, extra marital affair, may need to adjust their expectations before they take their seats.

In fact, adjust them prior to even entering the theatre, because the performance begins before you sit down. Cast members dressed in the dapper black uniforms of Milford station staff flirt with ladies as they find their seats and whistle along with the jazzy background music. Next they take up instruments themselves and entertain us with a pre-play ditty before the curtain rises. It's a very jolly start to a play based on one of the saddest films of all time.

The lead characters, Alec and Laura (Hannah Yelland and Milo Towmey) also begin their performance amongst the audience before moving on to the stage where the backdrop is a shot from the film: a steam train about to leave Milford Station. Alec steps onto the train and into the film, moving from stage play to celluloid in one slick movement.

This is an apt beginning to a production that merges elements of Noel Coward's original stage play with the better-known movie. And it hints at the post-modern japes that will follow.

Kneehigh have produced an all-singing, all-dancing version of Brief Encounter which mixes the melodrama with elements of musical theatre. The chorus of Milford station staff strum banjos and double basses to Noel Coward's songs, sometimes introducing acts to the audience in the style of a variety show compère.

And like in a variety show, there are plenty of comic turns with visual jokes a particular strength. Beryl and Myrtle (Beverly Rudd and Annette McLaughlin) who work in the station café are a classic comedy pairing of short and stocky with tall and thin. Their outfits are designed for laughs, as is the farcical nature of many of the scenes.

But in the middle of all this larking about, there's the very simple story of Laura and Alec who meet, fall in love, then say goodbye to return to their families. And the flipside of all the laughs is that we don't get many opportunities to share in the tragedy of their tale.

The audience is kept at a distance from a love story which is constantly exaggerated and undercut. Laura and Alec literally swoon at each other and the station staff dive in to catch them. At the height of their passion, Laura swings from a chandelier, and when they kiss on the platform, newspaper cinematically blows past – held by a member of the chorus.

It's very silly and very entertaining but it destroys any emotional impact. You can't get swept up in a love story which parodies the idea of falling in love.

This ironic approach may be down to a modern-day aversion to melodrama. Coward's dialogue seems overblown and sentimental nowadays – perhaps the only way to present it in 2009 is with a knowing wink. It's why the most moving scene is one where the lovers say very little because their final goodbye has been interrupted by the incessant chatter of an oblivious friend.

This was one of the few moments when the audience was allowed to get close to Alec and Laura's heartbreak. Yet although this interpretation doesn't have the tear-jerk factor of the original, it is enjoyable in its own way. Imaginative, playful, and full of life, it deserves the four Olivier nominations it received this year. Just make sure you go along expecting to laugh rather than cry.

Brief Encounter, until Saturday 28 March. Evenings: 7.30pm, Saturday matinee: 3pm. Tickets: £16 - £27. The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. Box office: 0870 787 5793 or www.thelowry.com

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