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Screen-to-stage adaptations have become a theatrical staple in recent years, and leave it to the Brits to do it with far more imagination than we.
Although the American theater has been delivering cookie-cutter musicals derived from such minor films as “Legally Blonde” and “The Wedding Singer,” London has seen wildly imaginative, highly theatrical versions of classics like “The 39 Steps.” Now comes “Brief Encounter,” the Kneehigh Theatre’s exhilarating multimedia adaptation of the classic David Lean film written by Noel Coward. Briefly ensconced at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in the last stop of a brief American tour, the production well deserves a commercial transfer.
Director-adapter Emma Rice’s production draws not only from the 1945 movie but also from “Still Life,” the one-act play on which it is based. It also incorporates several classic Coward songs into the proceedings as well as new numbers based on his poems.
The piece, set in the late 1930s, centers on the doomed love affair between two married people: Laura (Hannah Yelland), a wife and mother whose life has become a series of dull routines; and Alec (Tristan Sturrock), the dashing doctor whom she meets when he removes a piece of grit from her eye. As the couple falls hopelessly in love in a series of meetings at a grimy train station cafe, their plight is ignored by the bustling workers engaged in romantic dalliances of their own.
Upon entering the theater, you’re greeted by movie-theater ushers in period garb who regale you with comic banter and musical numbers. This immersion continues with the show proper, which ingeniously incorporates old-style film images and projections into which the characters pop in and out of with abandon. The overall effect is visually dazzling, but the neatest trick is that the technological gimmickry never overwhelms the simple power of the tale.
Cleverness abounds, from the use of puppets to portray Laura’s young children to the splashes of water provided to accompany the scene of the lovers’ comic attempt at boating in a lake.
The two leads fulfill their roles with moving conviction, and the ensemble provides sterling support, especially Joseph Alessi, doubling in the roles of Laura’s distracted husband and a cheer train dispatcher; Annette McLaughlin as the cafe owner; and Dorothy Atkinson as the tea girl who reveals her romantic longing in numbers like “Mad About the Boy.”
Venue: St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Through Jan. 3)
Production: Kneehigh Theatre
Cast: Hannah Yelland, Tristan Sturrock, Joseph Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, Annette McLaughlin, Stuart McLaughlin
Adapted by/director: Emma Rice
Scenic/costume designer: Neil Murray
Lighting designer: Malcolm Rippeth
Projection designers: Gemma Carrington, Jon Driscoll
Original music: Stu Barker
Sound designer: Simon Baker
Presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse
Originally produced by David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers and Cineworld
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