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Theater review: 'Noel Coward's Brief Encounter' at American Conservatory Theater

October 11, 2009 |  5:54 pm


Reporting from San Francisco

“Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s 1945 film based on Noel Coward’s one-act play “Still Life” from his “Tonight at 8:30” series, can scarcely be improved upon, so compactly perfect is this absorbing tale of two married people who, after a chance meeting at a railway station tearoom, fall futilely in love with each other.

Fortunately, Kneehigh Theatre’s “Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter” has no interest in competing head-on with a cinematic classic. Instead, this ingenious multimedia import from Britain, now receiving its U.S. premiere at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, pays homage to the movie by translating the romantic fable into a playfully eccentric language that fuses theater, music and film in a most delightfully populist fashion.

Directed and adapted to the stage by Emma Rice, the piece never loses sight that, while its source is one of those desert-island DVDs hypothetical castaways wish they could bring along with them, the experience is unfolding before a live audience. The impulse is to cleverly entertain, and the versatile ensemble members, who perform old Coward songs during the show as well as beforehand and at intermission, are unflaggingly creative in their whimsical efforts to bring us back in time to 1938, when this tale of forbidden love (a subject especially dear to Coward’s gay heart) begins.

Be2 Hannah Yelland has just the right look and period manner for Laura, the suburban housewife with two young kids (portrayed here by puppets) and a husband, Fred (Joseph Alessi), who’s utterly devoted to his crossword puzzles and banal routine. Milo Twomey is less distinctive as Alec, the doctor who falls head over heels for Laura after removing some grit from her eye at the station, but he adequately fulfills the outline of the role.

When we first meet Laura in the show’s prologue, she’s standing in the audience with Alec, who effuses undying affection for her. Moved, she nevertheless insists they be “sensible” — the watchword for Brits of her comfortable class and era.

A projected image reveals Laura’s orderly home, and when her husband calls out to her, she jumps through the screen and appears to land in one of the armchairs. This domestic scene fades as a train passes by in a loud roar of fate and Freudian symbolism. Immediately, the audience is aware that this is not going to be a mothballed reproduction but a free-floating theatrical riff that will make maximum use of ACT’s historic home as a former movie house.

The railway tearoom is the central locale, a nondescript place for a stale snack that’s presided over by Beryl (Beverly Rudd), a silly flirt given to horseplay, and her no-nonsense boss Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), who isn’t as unromantic as she first appears. This is where Laura, drinking some tea before her train arrives, receives some impromptu medical assistance from a stranger who will rapidly become the bright spot in her uneventful life.

Coward turns us into interested bystanders of this newly ignited intimacy, intensifying our investment in Laura and Alec’s passion, which will have little opportunity to break loose from middle-class respectability and repression. Naturally, the impossibility of the union only fuels the wish — of both the characters and the audience — that things could somehow be different.

It’s remarkable that the story’s sentiments are so well preserved given the freewheeling style of presentation. But then the production revels in a buoyant theatricality that, rather than illustrating the tale, heightens its underlying emotions.

As joy and sorrow burst in their hearts, the characters erupt in song, and Rudd, who delivers a memorable rendition of “Mad About the Boy,” reveals that she’s not just an expert clown but also a lusciously clear singer.

Some of the screen imagery seems a bit overcooked — the sea banging against the rocks, Laura ecstatically swimming. But, in general, the risks taken by Rice’s direction pay off. Indeed, the pleasures of her production are spry and simple and a good deal less spoofy than “The 39 Steps,” another lively British stage adaptation of an unimprovable old movie.

Most welcome is the way Kneehigh Theatre -- visiting ACT through Saturday -- refreshes the theatrical vocabulary, yet not in a rarefied avant-garde manner. From its game performers to its unostentatiously imaginative design team, the company offers its audience a broad embrace while refusing to dumb down its inventiveness.

But no version of “Brief Encounter” would be any good if didn’t have a heart. Rice spoils the heartbreaking ending with a modern gloss — she should have ended a few images earlier. Yet Yelland and Twomey manage to convey the yearnings of characters who are momentarily transported from their everyday lives into a transitory sublimity.

-- Charles McNulty

Photos: Top: Milo Twomey and Hannah Yelland.  Bottom: Twomey and Yelland.  Credit: Kevin Berne