Noel Coward's Brief Encounter: Theater Review

The enduring sentiment of Noel Coward’s paean to the stiff upper lip still triumphs despite this rather spurious production’s determination to neuter its repressed passions.

This English import, a classic romance of decent married lovers resolutely resisting adultery, arrives in Beverly Hills.

Possibly his most recognized work, Noel Coward’s screenplay for David Lean’s 1945 British film Brief Encounter, with its proper and decent married lovers resolutely resisting adultery, was indubitably the adult romance of its time, with the swells of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto counterpointing the personal sacrifice of ardor for order and honor. What could be more archaic or ripe for ridicule in an era characterized by hookups on the one hand, and the puritanical concept of an “emotional affair” on the other, making a hash of moral distinctions based on actual behavior?

This Kneehigh adaptation by director Emma Rice, based both on the screenplay and Coward’s original 40-minute Still Life, one of 10 one-acts comprising Tonight at 8:30, originated in its Cornwall home in 2007 and has since enjoyed enthusiastic acclaim in major houses in London, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Minneapolis and comes to Beverly Hills after an Australian tour en route to Washington, D.C.

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Considering the story ultimately ennobles fidelity, one must certainly note this rendition takes considerable liberties. Less a vision of the original than an occasion to tinker fussily with it, Rice deploys an array of mannered distancing devices, mostly pushed for bald comic effect, nearly all of which were commonplace when Brief Encounter was new and like most avant-garde tactics date rather more relentlessly than the admittedly old-fashioned virtues of Coward’s themes.

Coward was the sort of master magician who could appear to be effortlessly doing little at all while somehow succeeding at exploring a wide social array of different kinds of romantic love: young, old, middle-aged, bourgeois, privileged or working class. Having been himself a parvenu, Coward understood snobbery but was too cultivated to countenance it. Instead this show seems to revel in pandering, mocking the expression of intense suppressed emotions by encouraging a post-modern and rather shallow irony while shamelessly milking lowbrow laughs at the expense of everyone else but the central lovers, whose stolid fervor is parodied with self-conscious removal from identification. As so often the style, attitude prevails over sincerity, as if genuine depth of feeling must be gingerly approached with a detachment that reassures the audience that it may only partake of ingenuous passion with suspicion and skepticism.

Certainly Brief Encounter is amenable to criticism as an unalloyed apologia for the hidebound English temperament and its obeisance to a conventional, inevitably hypocritical, morality, but not only is that easier to preach at removed hindsight, but Coward understood all that perfectly well and set himself the most difficult task of finding the admirable and sublime in the necessity to hide and repress one’s deepest longings and urges. Soldiering on despite all was essential in the wartime environment in which the film was made, and it is not without relevance still as an exemplary lesson in finding priorities in the world higher than oneself. Rather than examining these values honestly at face value, this rendition offers us tricks and a smug satisfaction at our superiority to such benighted souls from a simpler time.

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As has quickly become the custom at this congenial new venue, production perquisites are handsome and well appointed. Nevertheless, projections of splashing waves for roiling instincts were already risible by From Here to Eternity, and the Buster Keaton coup from Sherlock Jr. of walking from stage into screen may have been profound in 1924, yet even then wasn’t particularly innovative. The movie clips tend toward nickelodeon knockoffs of Maya Deren, so feeble next to related work being done nowadays by the likes of Guy Maddin and others.

Perhaps the most promising of added wrinkles involve the interpolation of Coward songs in counterpoint to the action, although from the very first, “Every Little Fish,” it becomes clear that the intent will be laden with camp condescension. Curiously though, all this patronizing ultimately doesn’t diminish the poignancy inherent in Coward’s sustained appreciation for thwarted love: it survives all the heartily applied stagecraft in the touching moments between Jim Sturgeon and Hannah Yelland, each a delicate study in frustration and authentic openheartedness. Nevertheless, they are inevitably at a disadvantage when measured against the ineffable Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, so immortalized by their incomparably measured reaction shots in close-up. Call me an old fart who prefers one’s sentiment straight up, without winking or nudging, but I far preferred the unadorned Antaeus production of the original Still Life mounted locally in 2007, even as this theatrical juggernaut was being launched. 

Venue: Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills (through Mar. 23)

Cast: Jim Sturgeon, Hannah Yelland, Annette McLaughlin, Joe Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, Damon Daunno, David Brown, James Gow

Director: Emma Rice

Writer: Adapted by Emma Rice from Noel Coward’s 1936 play Still Life and his 1945 screenplay Brief Encounter, with additional verse and lyrics by Coward

Original Music: Stu Barker

Scenic Designer: Neil Murray

Lighting Designer: Malcolm Rippeth

Costume Design: Michael Krass

Sound Designer: Simon Baker

Projection & Film Designers: Jon Driscoll, Gemma Carrington

Musical Director: Ian Ross

Producer: Paul Crewes

A Kneehigh production.