Full steam ahead for Emma Rice’s take on Brief Encounter at Stephen Joseph Theatre

Anne-Marie Piazza’s Laura and Pete Ashmore’s Alec take time out from rehearsals for the SJT’s Brief Encounter to encounter LMS Royal Scot Class 46115 Scots Guardsman, the locomotive that featured in the 1936 film Night Mail. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

THE Stephen Joseph Theatre’s stage version of Noël Coward’s buttoned-up story of forbidden love, Brief Encounter, opens tomorrow in Scarborough.

Adapted for the stage by Emma Rice, of pioneering Kneehigh Theatre and Wise Children acclaim, SJT artistic director Paul Robinson’s actor-musician production is being staged in collaboration with Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, and the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

Rice herself had staged the premiere in 2007, her script drawing on both Coward’s 1945 film, Brief Encounter, and Still Life, his short play in five scenes from 1936, for a comedy drama that combined actors with a live band and film sequences.

“I contacted Emma and didn’t have to persuade her very much to let us do it,” says Paul. “She first said she’d worked on it for so long, she was just delighted to see it being done again, and then she contacted me again to say the only thing she would still like to have done was to do it in the round. I said, ‘please don’t come!’.” Relax, Paul was joking! “Emma was so generous,” he says.

He did not see her production but was drawn to her version of Brief Encounter by reading the script. “I think I might have felt daunted if I’d seen it,” he says, revelling in being able to bring a fresh perspective both to Rice’s play and Coward’s story of Laura and Alec, both married but not to each other, whose chance meeting at a railway station hurls them headlong into a whirlwind romance that threatens to blow their worlds apart.

“The Round requires you to do it differently, like when we did The 39 Steps, where we knew Patrick Barlow’s end-on production couldn’t be bettered, so why do it that way again?” Paul asks.

“We’ve decided to take an actor-muso approach to Brief Encounter,” says Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“We’ve decided to take an actor-muso approach with Brief Encounter. Emma had used actors and a band, and we’ll be showing off our company’s musicality too. This is a great way to see musicianship in a show, where they’re not only great actors but between them they can play 11 instruments at a drop of a hat – and often a hat really does have to be dropped to let them do that!”

As for the storytelling side of Brief Encounter, Paul says: “What Emma has encouraged us to do is to go back to Coward’s work in his Chekhovian portrayal of relationships and matters of class, and how he looks at first-time love, the couple who’ve been around the block, and then the illicit love of Alec and Laura.

“What we’d done is really explode all those emotions of being in love, making it not only visually explosive but tonally too. What Emma achieved that Coward didn’t was the ‘ridiculousness’ of being in love, though Alec and Laura’s love is more naturally shaped.

“Unlike the world Patrick Barlow created in The 39 Steps, their relationship is sacrosanct and needs to stay in a true place, which gives the play a core.”

Emma drew on Coward’s own songs and poems to highlight his own situation, where he never came out of “the closet”. “There were obviously a lot of parallels with what he could or could not say about love and his own relationships,” says Paul. “Society has still not moved to being polyamorous. We still have that push and pull of being attracted to people ‘we shouldn’t be’. ‘Thank goodness for that,’ says Emma. ‘It means we’re still alive’.”

Composer Simon Slater has given jazz arrangements to such Coward numbers as Mad About The Boy and set various Coward poems to new music. “They’re poems that Emma had picked out to go with the Coward script that she’d totally stripped back,” says Paul.

Forbidden love: Pete Ashmore’s Alec and Anne-Marie Piazza’s Laura in a Brief Encounter clench. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“She also used impressive, newly created film scenes to move characters seamlessly from stage to screen, but we can’t do that in the Round, which has given us added challenges, like how do we make Laura swim, how do we make waves, and how do we bring a train on stage without actually using film?

“That allows us to explore the wonderful expressionism of David Lean’s 1945 film without being too literal. They weren’t concerned with what a train sounded like, more with the cinematography, which was so extraordinary, as the story of Alec and Laura is told in such a heightened way, where they’re in rapture but also a high state of fear when they think of what they’re about to lose.”

Paul was adamant he would not undermine Brief Encounter’s truthfulness by sending up the clipped accents. “Yes, the film is very mannered and of its time, but I want the story to still feel resonant and I don’t want to take anything away from that, because the play is like Chekhov, where the subtext is vital. The accents will be RP (Received Pronunciation), but they won’t sound affected.

“I’ve also hinted at setting it in York. The film was filmed in wartime in the Lake District [at Carnforth station], because London was in blackout, but it was probably set in the Home Counties. I wanted to put more northern accents in it, implying it’s set at York station.

“We’re taking the production to the New Vic [Newcastle-under-Lyme], Bolton and Keswick, so we have north western and north eastern accents in the cast, because it’s fun to have a diversity of accents.”

Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter goes full steam ahead at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from tomorrow (22/7/2022) to August 27. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com

By Charles Hutchinson 

Copyright of The Press, York