Cinema on the Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 17 February, 2008

Kneehigh’s adaptation of the Powell & Pressburger film A Matter Of Life And Death last year divided opinion sharply over the liberties it took with the original, in terms of presentation and even core narrative. There is far less divergence this time, in part perhaps because Brief Encounter is more firmly rooted in our collective consciousness. And this is very much Brief Encounter, rather than Still Life, the stage play which preceded the film. Emma Rice’s adaptation draws on the earlier work, but Kneehigh are using their joyous theatricality to evoke a cinematic icon… even as far as staging the piece in the cinema where the film premièred in 1945. (The very title is not in fact an instance of the modern vogue for including names, but rather is the proper original UK cinematic title.)
Performers double as ushers and usherettes, showing us to our seats. Opening titles are projected, and during the intermission (not “interval”), cod-commercials are screened for products such as laundry soap and lard. Most impressive of all, the production includes the first major instance I have seen of a British company having characters step between stage and screen. The film segments are projected on to a screen composed of elasticated strips, and at a couple of points a character exits between two strips at the precise moment their image appears on film.
Astutely, only sparing use is made of this device; as I say, this is an evocation of a cinematic experience, but it is a decidedly live evocation. Crucial moments of Laura and Alec’s illicit liaison occur in the cinema, and as they sit in the front row and exit up the aisles of the auditorium we are at one with them in this event. As usual with Kneehigh, the action is punctuated by musical numbers with members of the company forming the band. And our foreknowledge that the affair is doomed adds weight to one of the company’s strengths, which is in bringing out the melancholy, agonising side of love; every moment of uncomplicated happiness between either of the other couples seen in the railway station tea-room throws Alec and Laura’s condition into stark relief. Pre-echoes are also evident of the upheavals of the coming Second World War.
A number of nits can be picked. There are some silly spelling errors on the back-projections, and “Go Slow Johnny” may be an authentic Coward song, but its mention of Brando jars in a 1938 setting. (My cupholder-grazed thighs also dispute the claim of “the comfiest theatre seats in London”.) But this is probably the finest marriage I have seen of Kneehigh’s aesthetic and their source material. Theatregoers can echo the final line of dependable husband Fred: “Thank you for coming back to me.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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