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.