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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Cinema Haymarket

By Matt Wolf

  Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick

Noel Coward gets the Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? treatment in the title of Kneehigh's latest show, but there's no denying that the late comic master here shares top honors with a Cornish theater company that with this production unforgettably enter the London mainstream. Making her West End debut at a Haymarket cinema that has been turned into a theater for this engagement, director Emma Rice at once pays due tribute to David Lean's landmark film and to the one-act Coward play (Still Life) that spawned it, in the process elevating Coward's quintessential Englishness to something approaching the sublime: What in other, lesser hands could have been twee and kitsch is here nothing short of a knockout.

Rice's abiding conceit has been to make Coward's subtext the soul of a piece about the impossible love between Laura, a housewife (Naomi Frederick, cannily inheriting Celia Johnson's screen role), and Alec, a married doctor (Tristan Sturrock, who actually surpasses the film's Trevor Howard),who meet on a railway platform and embark upon an affair that - it's giving nothing away - is doomed from the start. But whereas the film plays upon emotions clamped down and passions expressed in hushed, desperate tones, Rice here incorporates video footage of waves crashing on to the shore in surges of emotions that these people probably didn't know they possessed. And you get all the appurtenances that once accompanied trips to both the theater and the cinema - vendors in the aisles, for one - in a buoyant staging that meets Coward's affect head on while finding its own heady equivalent in the sight of Laura and Alec at one point hanging from chandeliers.

The play version fleshes out the film's environment delightfully and well and offers two career-making supporting turns from Stuart McLoughlin, as the young, smitten, banjolele-playing Stanley, and Amanda Lawrence as Beryl, the object of his affectionate crooning. Among the rest, Andy Williams never once demonises the role of the husband to whom we know Laura will - indeed, must- return, and he and Frederick make game participants in a Zelig-like structure that finds their story bleeding in and out of celluloid, as befits the riotous, deeply empathic imagination of a theater practitioner who is able and willing to press all art forms (cabaret and bursts of dance, included) into an evening's entertainment. This has been a busy, productive period for Coward, between the National's Present Laughter and Peter Hall's West End Vortex, not to mention a superb exhibition on view at the National and all too easily overlooked. But at a time when the far more glib, less challenging 39 Steps is running to acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, this Brief Encounter goes way beyond facetiousness to hit playgoers where they live - in that indefinable sphere between head and heart where your connection to a show suddenly bypasses the cerebral to find you and those around you choked up with tears.


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