In the train station café in which much of the action occurs in Kneehigh Theatre's wistful adaptation of Noël Coward, patrons and vendors shake and rattle when the locomotives rumble past; at other moments, an invisible breeze blows through, buffeting everyone. Trembling, swooning, and moments of eyes-closed rapture are the order of the day for our principal protagonists.
Housewife Laura (Hannah Yelland) and doctor Alec (Milo Twomey) meet by coincidence at the station, each heading in different directions, and the pair plunge instantly into love, whether or not they are willing to admit it to themselves. The primary obstacle to their mutual passion is considerable: the spouses and children waiting for them at home.
Coward's 1945 film Brief Encounter was based on his short play Still Life, a study in impossible romance informed in no small part by its author's homosexuality and his times. Yet it has endured because of its universality: the danger of souls connecting when circumstances make their union impossible, and the allure of exposing one's secret self that belies conventional, everyday truths.
In the stage version at the Guthrie, director Emma Rice takes this volatile material in haunting and unexpected directions. Coward's stock in trade was language, of course—the realities it both masks and reveals. Here the emphasis is on mood and a hungry sensuality that dims the particulars of Laura and Alec's romance while delivering the giddy, frightening reality that unfolds between them (for a time).
When Laura opens her heart to Alec, a huge onscreen projection depicts a girl swimming underwater, unfettered, expressing aspects of her self that exist outside the districts of language. And when husband Fred (Joseph Alessi) appears in projection, Yelland steps into the screen, her physical form replaced by large-scale black and white, her expression drained of excitement and possibility.
Laura and Alec must eventually confront the unfeasibility of what they both ardently desire, but before we get there this production veers in another direction: live performances of Coward compositions, sung by the cast, in which the lyrics of love songs evoke both the operatic heartache on display as well as the silliness of human entanglements (a welcome commentary on, and diversion from, the possibility of letting things get too heavy).
Still, love is indeed all around, in the form of parallel romances between porter Albert (Alessi) and snack-bar proprietor Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin, brassy and wise-ass), and between knockabout Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin) and waitress Beryl (Beverly Rudd, attacking numerous comedic angles). The quartet play out considerably less fraught love affairs than the couple in the foreground, a reminder that, to outside eyes, a life-changing circumstance can be regarded as commonplace.
Yelland is the heartbreaker of the evening, her Laura haunted by the gravity of her pure and overwhelming emotion, radiating joy with Alec, then nearly shattering when she realizes a local gossip has seen the two of them together. Twomey evinces little of the same solemnity, his Alec capable of substantial charm but seeming not to acknowledge the depth of the waters into which his heart has been submerged.
Even Coward's dialogue feels drained of much of its wit and import, perhaps no great accident. For we end up feeling that the content of love proclamations matters less than their substance: the wide-open and intoxicating sense that these two people have, for the first time in their lives, found someone who truly understands them. All the more painful when they have to part, as they must, in a farewell appropriately littered by the trivial and oblivious outside world.
Audiences eager for a literal adaptation of Coward's film and play might well meet with disappointment. But here is a work with galaxies of sympathy toward its star-crossed lovers, and rather than expressing it as a small-scale tragedy (as all are, in a sense), it dresses things up in song, whimsy, and beauty. And then the future looks far less bleak.