Brief Encounter

“Utterly charming - from arrival to departure”

Sir Noël Coward was known for not only pushing the boundaries of his time but for his subtle, yet effective storytelling through wit and sentiment. Emma Rice’s adaptation of ‘Brief Encounter’, expertly directed by Sarah Frankcom, is no different.

Starting its life as a one-act play of just five scenes, Coward presented the then called ‘Still Life’ as part of an anthology of short plays under the title ‘Tonight At 8:30’, in 1936. It has been adapted multiple times since its premiere- most notably the beloved Oscar nominated 1945 film which is regularly cited in polls as one of the greatest films of all time.

The protagonist of the piece is Laura (Hannah Azuonye), a married woman with children who lives a prosaic life until a serendipitous encounter with a married stranger in a railway station changes her life. The plot is also intertwined with other portrayals of love through its array of strong characters, each of whom we, as an audience, are rooting for throughout.

I must say, from the moment I arrived at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, I experienced a sense of awe. The grade II building itself is breath-taking and created an ambience befitting of the production. Waiting to enter the theatre pod, under its beautiful, domed high ceilings was reminiscent of being in New York’s Grand Central Station. This continued when we took our seats, with the beautiful clock hanging elegantly above the simple yet elegant set of the stage (designed by Rose Revitt.) With period piano music gracefully playing in the foyer until the ringing of a bell to signal the start of the production, it was clear that every part of this show was adroitly thought out and, although simple, it had maximum effect. This was echoed in Lighting Design (by Simeon Miller) which was subtle in its approach but intelligently used during scene transitions to assist in the gentle shifting of the mood and tone of the piece. 

It would be fair to say that the book is verging on too thin, however, the setting was a simpler time and although none of the themes were particularly shocking to a modern audience, in its debut, this would have astonished the patrons. The casting of this production brings a modern-day interpretation of the turmoil of love, using people of colour and non-binary casting choices. However, for the regular theatre goer, this is neither ground-breaking nor necessary to critique. 

This truly is an ensemble piece with five of the seven actors playing multiple roles to great effect. Acting choices were perfectly executed, vocals emotive and, in one scene, Matthew Allen (as the band leader) played the saxophone before quickly swapping shoes for a tap number: sublime. Also adding depth to the glorious dynamics of the cast members was Matthew Malone (Orchestrator, Musical Supervisor and Musical Director.) Malone was intrinsic to the production and his passion and creativity reverberated around the theatre and, at times, I found myself observing his role in the band as much as those performing in character. 

The music in this adaptation (unlike a lot of modern-day musicals) is not shoehorned in for the sake of it. With just 11 songs in the two-hour piece, they serve a purpose in informing us of the characters’ feelings, almost in soliloquy. It is incredible to believe that they were not part of the original script.

This is a feel-good production that will leave you feeling safe and warm. Utterly charming – from arrival to departure.

This show was reviewed on the 8th December 2023.  Brief Encounter runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until the 13th January 2024.  Tickets available here: Brief Encounter - Royal Exchange Theatre

Review written by Lee Gregory

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

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