With the Emma Rice adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter this Christmas, the Royal Exchange has become an oaken art deco music box, playing songs of love’s young dream, heartbreak, hope and the sass and sadness of a brief and beautiful affair.
Alec (Baker Mukasa), takes dirt from Laura’s (Hannah Azuonye) eye in a train station café and it leaves an indelible mark on both of them. Enchanted by their unfamiliarity, Alec and Laura stop at nothing to meet on Thursdays. They unpeel their sensibilities in giddy conversations. No one wants romance to be seedy, but it winds up being rubbished by a farcical moment of reality that wakes Laura up from the spell. The twinkle in her eye is tarnished. They depart via their other worlds intercepting.
Meanwhile, Myrtle (Christina Modestou) the station café manager and Fred (Richard Glaves) the platform guard try to professionally conceal their own blossoming goings on. Beryl (Ida Regan) the waitress and Stanley (Georgia Frost) the sundries seller are nurturing love’s young dream with little gifts and doings round the back. And all the characters try to edge closer to affection cautiously. It’s a tale of unbridled passion with cups of tea and coats on.
Emma Rice’s adaptation which lends itself to many nuances, is thoughtfully mined by Sarah Frankcom’s direction. Frankcom has paired the story with Noel Coward’s well-known bangers. The production manages to be both silly and serious, which is not an easy balance, but Frankcom does this to great effect. The music directed and arranged by uber-talented Matthew Malone lifts the thoughts and emotional journeys of the characters in a poetic tribute to Coward’s storytelling in both music and in scripting.
Having a live score focuses on something only theatre can really do and that is to give us a live experience of the scope of the talent of all the team and that is the real treat of the show. The performance of the songs, showcase this cast of talented creatives which was received as well as an early Christmas present by the press night audience. If I have a wish for you all this Christmas is that you get to experience Ida Regan as Myrtle singing Mad About The Boy.
It’s a fun and very special show.
But something that becomes starkly obvious in this production, in the tone and delivery Frankcom has encouraged, is the subtext heavy relationship between Alec and his friend Stephen whose flat Alec has a spare key to. On almost catching Alec at it, Stephen is blasé at first and makes some cautious yet deliberate references to his own private life, something that he knows that Alec is prithee to. Stephen is okay seems okay with Alec having an affair initially but somehow Alec has overstepped a different boundary. Stephen asks Alec for the key back. There is something between the two men, another layer of understanding that we aren’t entirely invited in on. The fact that this can never be stated by the writers, or any production is enticing to me and I like to make my own mind up as to why Stephen suddenly changes how he feels and Alec is left shamed.
As I wait on the tram platform to make my own journey home, the wooden scenery in front of me is the Christmas shed’s opposite Exchange Square tram stop. All the woollen hats and sausages are put to bed inside them now. The message in lights above the shelter of the tram stop reminds travellers that staring at someone is offensive, as a drunk guy in a deer stalker sways gently beside me. And I am remembering how many chancers in the past pestered me on the way home. And briefly I thought about Stephen’s available serviced flat, and how we know very little about Alec in Brief Encounter. And how easily he could have the afternoon off considering he is a doctor. And I’m thinking, hang on…is Alec actually full of shit? Lucky escape, Laura.
Brief Encounter is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 2 December 2023 to 13 January 2024. Age guidance 12+