Mairi Babb and Eric Blais in Brief Encounter - Photo: David Cooper
Mairi Babb in Brief Encounter - Photo: David Cooper


Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and Manitoba Theatre Centre
Brief Encounter Songs by Noël Coward, adapted for the stage by Emma Rice

Dates and Venue 27 November - 23 December 2010, 8pm (matinee performances at 2pm) | Vancouver Playhouse

Director Max Reimer Assistant Director Meg Roe Set Design & Lighting Design Alan Brodie Costume Design Sheila White Sound Design Lucas Cooper Stage Manager Rick Rinder

Reviewer John Jane

Eight-o’clock brought, not the curtain, but cast members as old-style cinema ushers and usherettes (language was more gender specific in the thirties) resplendent in brown and gold uniforms strolling around the auditorium singing pre-war music hall ditties such as Goodbye, Dolly Gray and Oh, You Beautiful Doll.

This Vancouver Playhouse and Manitoba Theatre co-production of Brief Encounter combines the charm of 1930s cinema with new millennium hi-tech staging. A train scuds across the stage on a traverse curtain; actors expand the stage into the aisles and move in and out of projected film snippets.

Chronologically, Emma Rice’s radical stage adaptation is more or less faithful to Noël Coward’s original play, Still Life, which he wrote for Gertrude Lawrence and himself. Still, the casting choice of Mairi Babb and Eric Blais as ill-fated lovers, Laura and Alec may have been influenced by their physical likeness to Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard from the 1946 David Lean film version.

Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey are two people who first meet in a British Railways station cafeteria, with the good doctor Alec removing grit from Laura's eye, thus auguring the start of a furtive affair which in the late thirties would have been considered absolutely taboo. Even without familiarity with Coward’s play, it’s difficult to see such a romantic liaison ending happily – and it doesn’t. After many a clandestine rendezvous, Laura and Alec reluctantly rebound to their respective spouses.

The play works best when the action revolves around the juxtaposed relationships between two blue-collar (what the Brits call working class) couples who don't share the same complex entanglement as the blighted central characters. Obstreperous waitress Beryl (Rachel Aberle) and Stanley the obtuse platform vendor (Charlie Gallant), whose wanton ardour is aptly demonstrated with their appealing rendition of Mad about the Boy, is at variance with the delightfully pretentious cafeteria manager Myrtle Bagot (Lucia Frangione) and concupiscent station-master Albert Godby (Jonathan Holmes) who disport a little more decorum.

The production suddenly takes itself seriously in the second act, sacrificing much of the humour in favour of closer focus on the confused heroine and her idealistic beau. The dramatic shift is actually welcome, since it is in this mood of tenderness and sensitivity that we hear some of Coward’s more plaintive songs. In the boat yard scene, Laura demurely removes her wet clothes to the accompaniment of Go Slow Johnny. In a similar manner, Alex standing alone on stage expresses melancholic with A Room with a View.

The entire cast works very hard to make this show a success. None more so than the versatile Lucia Frangione, who showed off her penchant for comedic timing in both the roles of the haughty Myrtle Bagot and the perversely urbane Mrs. Norton, as well as musical chops performing with the band during the intermission.

Despite the noble efforts of the actors and Sheila White’s remarkable period-specific clothing, there were some elements that seemed to be out of place in Rice’s seditious adaptation. For instance, Alec looked particularly awkward trying to step onto a model train operated by the station-master; Laura playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto on a stand-up piano against a backdrop of crashing surf was certainly transfixing, but difficult to place in the overall context of the story.

© 2010 John Jane