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Brief Encounter review at Empire Cinema, London – ‘unashamedly romantic’

Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon in Brief Encounter at Empire Cinema, London. Photo: Steve Tanner Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon in Brief Encounter at Empire Cinema, London. Photo: Steve Tanner

The Rice restorative. Someone really ought to bottle it.  First seen in London in 2008, Brief Encounter, the most satisfying of Emma Rice’s screen-to-stage adaptations, is both a love letter to film and a richly theatrical experience in and of itself – so it makes perfect sense to stage it in a cinema, complete with uniformed ushers, ruched pink curtains and popcorn.

Drawing on David Lean’s iconic 1946 film and Noel Coward’s original 1936 play, Still Life, Rice splices black and white projections, puppetry and aerial work (yet more flying lovers) with atmosphere-enriching songs and poems, also by Coward.

While it would have been easy to gently mock the clipped English restraint of the central love story, Rice never once goes down that road. She gives the relationship the space and weight it deserves.

Laura (Isabel Pollen) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon), both married, meet at a train station tearoom. After he removes a bit of grit from her eye, they embark on a love affair. Trips to the pictures and the boating lake quickly develop into something more passionate.

Using flowing choreography, Rice shows how love can unmoor people. Laura and Alec find themselves wave-and-wind tossed, at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Pollen and Sturgeon combine emotional reserve with an underlying sense of yearning, while the characters that inhabit the tearoom provide both contrast and a welcome note of bawdiness. Class is one of the production’s central preoccupations. All around Alec and Laura, people are giving in to their impulses.

The production feels trimmer and tighter than in earlier incarnations, there are some superb comic turns from the supporting cast, and the whole thing manages to be unashamedly romantic, while also startlingly poignant in places. Theatre as elixir. Delicious.

Kneehigh’s Brief Encounter: how projections bring a classic film to life on stage

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