By Jordan Wright (Photo/Shakespeare Theatre)
Noel Coward likely wouldn’t have imagined this captivating version of his one-act play, “Brief Encounter,” but surely he would have swooned over it.
Using the 1945 film of the same name as a start, adaptor and director Emma White has created an innovative and charming variation that blends film and theater. Kneehigh productions, a Cornish theater company that already has garnered two Tony Award nominations for this touring musical, sweeps the audience into the realm of the silver screen and the age of witty repartee for which Coward and his sophisticated coterie were known.
The love story of “Brief Encounter,” which a recent poll conducted by The Guardian deemed one the most romantic of all time (beating out “Gone with the Wind” and “Casablanca”), involves three couples. Laura (Hannah Yelland), a wife with two young children takes the Thursday train into town to do her shopping while Alec (Jim Sturgeon), a country doctor, catches the same train to do his weekly rounds at a city hospital. They meet, falling quickly in love after he offers to take a speck of coal dust from her eye on the station’s platform.
Another romance blossoms between the stationmaster, Albert (Joe Alessi), and Myrtle Bago (Annette McLaughlin), the sassy tearoom manager. The third liaison is between Myrtle’s assistant, Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), a childlike sprite, and Stanley (Damon Daunno), her ardent admirer, who is a candy vendor.
The action is underpinned with music. A few tunes come from Coward’s repertoire and other pieces, like a sweeping Rachmaninoff concerto — to show how Laura and Alec are swept off their feet — are taken from other sources. Each piece is intrinsic to the mood and heightens the tension in the developing romances.
Projection and film designers Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll recall the near past with black and white footage of train stations and create impressive dream sequences full of crashing waves and underwater scenes. The many innovative and complex effects blur the line between reality and fantasy.
A particularly memorable moment in Laura and Alec’s romance comes when they reveal their passion by swinging on chandeliers while falling stars, whirling planets and rising champagne bubbles are projected on the background. Another lively scene, showcasing Albert’s increasing bravado, has him engaging Myrtle with a bit of aggressive flirtation to the audience’s great delight.
Costume designer Neil Murray cleverly adds touches of red — a velvet coat, Beryl’s pumps, Myrtle’s dress, Stanley’s vest and a red rose, for example — to break up an otherwise drably colored world dominated by British tweeds.
Most poignantly, in a scene where Laura and Alec are hoping to consummate their love, a musician strums a ukulele while singing “Go Slow, Johnny,” a haunting ballad from Coward’s songbook. It serves as a highlight of this tender, hilarious and extraordinarily original show.
“Brief Encounter” runs through April 13 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information contact the box office at 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.