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Brief Encounter at the Royal Exchange

Brief Encounter at the Royal Exchange

December 2023

David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter is a true silver screen classic, with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard immortalising Noël Coward’s story of hopeless love. The Royal Exchange invites us to enjoy a different take on the original with their latest production, Emma Rice’s 2007 adaptation. For those who have not seen the film, Brief Encounter sees Laura and Alec randomly meet in a railway refreshment room when she has a speck of coal in her eye and he, a GP, offers to remove it. They happen to meet again the following week, and the week after…until their liaisons are planned, secretive, and elegantly awkward. Both married with children, this is an affair destined to fail.

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Noël Coward’s death and this production sprinkles Coward’s text with his songs and music, played by the on-stage jazz quartet; sung by the talented cast. More a play with music than full-blown musical, this adds an extra layer of quality to Sarah Frankcom’s slick direction. Franckom successfully intertwines the main love story with the burgeoning relationships between railway and tearoom staff – I’d love to know what Ms. Bagot is putting in the tea! Rose Revitt’s stylish staging offers a sumptuous tearoom with hidden tracks, and a stunning opening to Act 2, an absolute highlight of the production.

Baker Mukasa (Alec) and Hannah Azuonye (Laura) perfectly capture the era with their cut-glass accents and impeccable manners and offer characters that we genuinely care about. The remaining cast of five build out the story and subplots. Christina Modestou, overseeing business in her tearoom (and back room!), could have fallen straight out of a Victoria Wood sketch; and Georgia Frost is hilarious as the innocently sweet Stanley wooing his first love Beryl.

Brief Encounter offers love that is innocent, love that is illicit, and a bit of hanky-panky to boot. The added songs pull at the heart strings one minute, then get us clapping along the next. As Laura and Alec’s final farewell is snapped way from them, we empathise with Laura’s loss, her momentary suicidal thought, and ultimate acceptance of a life less exciting as she falls back into her family routine, knowing she is loved dearly by her faithful (and potentially knowing) husband. And what better way to end the night with a jig or two with her man, and the rest of the cast, soaking up the rapturous applause. This encounter may be brief, but will be remembered long after the lights go down.

Royal Exchange: Dec 2nd, 2023 – Jan 13th, 2024 

Garry Thomas-Lowde for Canal St Media

Published: 9-Dec-2023 (7336)

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