Brief Encounter: Arena Theatre - Shelley Theatre, Bournemouth
Full marks to Arena Theatre for taking one of post war Britain’s favourite big screen weepies and turning it into such an enthusiastic and fun evening. Without Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson or indeed the peerless Eileen Joyce playing Rachmaninov to highlight the emotional journey of the star-crossed lovers, recreating anything remotely resembling David Lean’s 1946 romantic masterpiece could have been a very big ask indeed.
Arena rose to the task with aplomb. A fine cast headed by Joanna Dunbar as bored wife Laura Jesson and Jeremy Mills as Dr Alec Harvey, the frustrated GP she falls in love with after a brief encounter on a railway station, delivered a production that stayed loyal to the original story while displaying a distinct character of its own. Spirited and imaginative direction from Arena artistic director Paul Nelson and music and songs based on the delightful English ditties of Noel Coward (who also wrote the screenplay for the original film) bring levity and humour to this highly-charged human drama.
The production works particularly well by establishing a social context for the couple’s shocking liaison. Both are middle class, middle aged and married to other people. Dodgy at anytime but completely unthinkable in 1938 when the action of this play takes place. To set the mood audience members are even shown to their seats by uniformed ushers singing Coward songs from the era. The simple but effective stage set seamlessly switches from railway cafe to Laura Jesson’s front room, a posh restaurant and even the local cinema. A back screen shows images and videos that evoke the style of the time and occasionally add to the story of two people desperate for love but trapped by unfulfilling lives and relationships.
Laura Jesson’s dull husband Fred is played by Simon Meredith who like several of the cast also appear as other characters. In this case he morphs very effectively into jolly station master Albert Godby who has designs on bossy cafe manager Myrtle Bagot played by Beverley Beck. This entertaining little relationship is one of number of subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) sub-plots. Jack the lad station worker Stanley (Jack Edwards) meanwhile has designs on cafe assistant Beryl (Kim Fletcher). The railway staff’s innocent flirting continues as Laura and Alec desperately try, without success, to disguise their passion for each other. Eventually their growing relationship is suspected and then almost discovered as a secret meeting in a friend’s flat is interrupted. Laura is left ashamed and humiliated. Circumstance brings their burgeoning affair (nothing has actually happened) to an end. She briefly contemplates suicide but dutifully returns to her husband. Brief Encounter is a rollercoaster of emotions. With this production, based on an adaptation by Emma Rice of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre, Arena have done a fine job.
*Arena Theatre’s Brief Encounter will play Dorchester Arts on Friday 2nd Oct