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Kneehigh's Brief Encounter rekindles romance


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Is there such a thing as “it was meant to be” when it comes to romantic love? And if so, what happens if you meet your dream lover when you are already married?

These are among the curly questions posed by Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, a colourful multi-media re-imagining of David Lean’s 1945 film of the same name and Noel Coward’s 1930s play Still Life.

“The play is set in 1938 and we hold true to that, but the themes are universal – everyone knows what it’s like to be in love with someone they shouldn’t,” associate director Simon Harvey says ahead of the production’s opening in Adelaide this week.

“The theme of love is universal and the style with which we tell it is quirky and innovative, so that gives it a modern feel.”

Innovative UK theatre company Kneehigh has been brought to Adelaide by the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It has been performing and touring Brief Encounter since 2007, and while some of the cast members have done hundreds of shows, they are being joined for the Australian season by two Adelaide actresses – Michelle Nightingale as female lead Laura and Kate Cheel as tea-room assistant Beryl.

The play centres on married woman Laura and doctor Alec, who meet by chance at a train station when Alec helps get a speck of dust out of Laura’s eye. Their story of spontaneous passion is dovetailed with that of two other couples at the station tearoom (Beryl and Stanley and Albert and Myrtle).

“There’s a lot of comedy in the show, which helps the tragic story at the centre – it (the humour) comes from the other characters,” Harvey says. “The funnier it gets with them, the sadder it gets with the central couple.”

In line with Kneehigh’s reputation for mixing art-forms and challenging conventions, director Emma Rice’s adaptation cleverly combines the live action with black and white film footage inspired by the original movie. It also has an interactive element.

“The play starts with Laura and Alec sitting in the audience watching the film, so the audience are part of the action in the beginning … then a scene breaks out in the front row and they get drawn up on the stage and into the screen, then the screen raises to show the stage,” Harvey says.

The score includes original music and Coward’s own songs and poetry. There is a three-piece band, and most of the actors also play an instrument at some point in the show, with the double bass, cello, trumpet, ukulele, drums, banjo and a melodian all getting an airing.

Puppets are used to depict Laura’s children, with trains represented by everything from a smoke machine to a toy train set.

“The film is very naturalistic and set in the station … it’s all about the era and manner of the time but we’ve mixed that with a musical variety show feel,” Harvey says.

At its heart, however, Brief Encounter is all about love and the trials and tribulations it entails. So, does Harvey have an answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article?

“I think some people are meant to be together – absolutely.

“I think the thing about the play is that the two people come together accidentally and they fall passionately in love but it doesn’t go anywhere.”

“I think people will just get swept up in it. It’s like the characters – they have a wave of emotion and just get swept up in it. They’re not trying to hurt each other or anyone else. And they are both trying to do the right thing, which is what makes it so heart-wrenching.”

Brief Encounter officially opens at the Dunstan Playhouse this Friday (September 13), with previews from September 10.

Note: The trailer above is from the London production of Brief Encounter.

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