A Play, Inside a Movie, Wrapped in a Play 

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An innovative, uplifting, sentimental without being treacly show from Great Britain playing at St. Ann's Warehouse for a couple of extra weeks, having sold out its original run, is making lots of critics' Best of 2009 list, and it makes mine, too. Brief Encounter by Kneehigh Theatre is a theatrical confection with substance: it's got 8 vitamins and iron, once you add the milk (that is, the emotional base) that support its fanciful aesthetics. In other words, don't be fooled by the show's sugary surface, particularly in its first fifteen ebullient minutes. The show is a theatricalization of the eponymous 1945 film, itself based on Noel Coward's 1936 play Still Life. That music you hear in the lobby as you enter is provided by the cast—they are not a band in costume as movie ushers from the forties, but the cast themselves. The imagination and skill is jaw-dropping; they seem not to be actors who play but players who magically acquired not just performance but acting chops. The company was founded in Cornwall in 1980 by a village school teacher running theater workshops in his spare time, according to the company's press, written by Mike Shepherd, the Founder and Joint Artistic Director. They use found spaces, including quarries and cliff-tops, which may account for the innovative way they turn the set into a home, a railway station café, a restaurant, a cinema. The players change with each project.

Rarely are press materials so convincingly sincere and appealing that you feel like chucking it all to go join the company (even rarer to feel like giving such materials a shout-out in a review). Kudos to Shepherd for managing to quote Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment without ever seeming pompous. Cornwall, as he points out, is the South West tip of the British Isles, King Arthur country. But the company's mission, its identity, is what has led them to create something so fully thought-through, so daring and so much fun. Nobody's trying to impress you, but just get inside the story and bring you along. And that's what makes it so impressive. Seeing this small-town British troupe makes one wonder if the next innovative American company will come from Maine.

You expect one of two possible outcomes from a theater piece structured around an existing film. The first is a pop culture offering aimed to please children and tourists by its representation of a known quantity—most of the Disney shows (Lion King, with its Julie Taymor costumes and sets, a notable exception), Shrek, the Broadway versions of Footloose, The Wedding Singer, and so on. I actually enjoyed Shrek, and have skipped most of the others, but even with great performances and clever songs, what you don't expect is any surprise. Billy Elliott is a film about dance, so seeing the live dance feels more like a culmination than a lame replication, but even so, it's still very much a known quantity. Ditto 9 to 5, despite sweet songs from Dolly Parton.

The second possible outcome is the arch and avant-garde, in which live action and film interact or comment on one another. See, for example, Ivo Von Hove's staging of John Cassavetes' film Opening Night at BAM last year. Sometimes these projects are an homage to the original film; sometimes they are gently (or not so gently) sending it up. With Opening Night you were caught betwixt and between—if you saw the film just before seeing the show you'd be bored, but if you didn't, you'd be lost.

Brief Encounter gives you something else again, neither a theatrical "expansion" of the film, nor merely a comment on it, but a complete reinvention of the story, set to music, playfully acknowledging the two genres, the distance between 2009 and 1946, and finally presenting the same sad story of unfulfilled love that was in Coward's film. So if you're wondering whether to rent the film first, do it, but try to let some time go by in between. But really, you should have seen the David Lean classic by now.

click to enlarge Brief Encounter at St. Anns Warehouse

The movie, and the play, tell the story of Laura (elegant Hannah Yelland), a housewife with two small children, who meets Alec (appropriately handsome Tristan Sturrock), a doctor, at a railway station café when he removes a bit of grit from her eye. They spend the afternoon together, then arrange to meet again—as friends. She tries to tell her husband, but he barely looks up from his crossword puzzle, and seems pleased for her to have had nice company. Soon Laura and Alec are in over their heads, meeting weekly, fighting the current of their own feelings. She fights them more than he does. The movie is a subtle, sad evocation of how human souls find love and romance when life has become mundane, and how strong finally the bonds of family can be. It sounds so old-fashioned in these days of Tiger Woods and his double-digit girlfriends, but thwarted love is a story that never grows old. Laura and Alec's romance is joined by two other couples from the café: the ebullient candy-seller Stanley (tall, cheeky Stuart McLoughlin) and the waitress Myrtle (adorable Annette McLaughlin), and the manageress Myrtle (huffily polite alto Dorothy Atkinson) and station master Fred (jovial Joseph Alessi). Three more cast members are listed as musicians and ensemble.

Kneehigh gracefully acknowledges that they are working with a classic film, from the ruched magenta curtains that recall a period movie house (set and costume design by Neil Murray) to actual film projections from time to time. It's particularly fun when a character parts the curtains onto which a train is projected and then is seen in the film, on the train (Projection Design by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll). Like the film, the play begins at the end, though not in exactly the same way. Laura runs melodramatically away from Alec, into the audience, then we are in Laura's home where her husband has the final line of the film—"Thank you for coming back to me." At this point you might think you're heading into a send-up of those prudish wartime Brits. But Kneehigh demonstrates that it is possible to send up some mores of the time while still finding them profoundly moving.

The music throughout the show is utterly charming: some are Noel Coward's songs, so the lyrics have their own sly wit; the production's original music is by Stu Barker. Stanley and Myrtle sing Coward's "Every Little Fish Can Swim," with him playing on the ukelele, both commenting on courtship and performing one right in front of our eyes. Laura's children are played by realistic puppets. When on their next meeting Alec begs Laura to trust him, they literally play the trust game, that game you play in Intro to Acting, falling into the singers' arms behind them, who have gone into the next verse of "Every Little Fish." A toy train sometimes stands in for the real train as Laura runs up the scaffolding to get to the right platform. The show's shifting visual perspective gives a little jolt of air into the story, keeping it constantly surprising, but soon enough just watching the overall story of a married woman wrestling with her conscience—her marriage is hardly empty—and her desire is enough to keep you leaning forward. Meanwhile, the other two couples' romances seem to have happier fates: Beryl's seductive "I'm No Good at Love" only convinces you that she will be the boss in her relationship (aided by the sight of Albert on his knees), and Stanley and Myrtle couldn't be cuter.

The show reprises earlier scenes for maximum impact; by the time you get to the parting at the end, you won't find the plummy accents and renunciation funny at all. "Loving you is hard for me—it makes me a stranger in my own house," Laura says. The echoes of a day boating on the water, a scene played both live and filmed, feel appropriately dreamy, as all such lovers' stolen moments feel. Malcolm Rippeth's lighting design shifts the mood starkly so that at times you feel as though you too are in a black and white movie. Director Emma Rice has pulled off something rare: experimental theater that wears its heart on its sleeve. So generous is the production that the cast even sing in the lobby after the show. Sure, they want to sell CDs, but the performance is just for you.

(photo credit: Kneehigh Theatre)

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