I was in a good mood last night because it was my first visit to the new, very posh, Wallis Center. Every detail is so meticulously realized it takes you breath away. It provides a frame for Kneehigh that's a bit different from their barns in Cornwall (wonderful as those must be).
But I confess that for the first 20 minutes of their stage production of Brief Encounter I was uncomfortable. I acknowledge that Noël Coward & David Lean’s movie provides abundant material to spoof. Celia Johnson’s accent and strange eyes are often unbearable.
And yes, the snobbery is outrageous. Of course, the masochism is so amped up and electric it crackles. But the snobbery and the masochism are what generates the tragedy. If you dismiss them—if you tell Laura and Alec to grow up, face reality get divorces and then marry each other—you destroy the mechanism and you’re left with nothing.
It’s a popular attitude these days, denying tragedy, but whatever sense it may have in the real world, it’s fatal on stage. Telling Antigone to stop worrying about burying her brother merely renders her character and the actors and the audience pointless. Why can’t Alec and Laura be natural and have a fling like Myrtle and Albert? They can’t because he is Alec and she is Laura.
So I was delighted when they got to the boathouse scene. Damon Daunno sang "Go Slow, Johnny," with aching tenderness, while Hannah Yelland and Jim Sturgeon enacted Laura and Alec’s simultaneous love and discomfort with a long, painful silence. It was breathtakingly sad. Kneehigh discovered the foolproof theatrical goods hidden underneath the campy trappings.
From then on, the tragedy unspooled along a clear and bright thread, as other business—all of it clever and ingeniously produced—provided side-bar commentary and parody. Much of the comedy was provided by Dorothy Atkinson, who played the woefully oppressed refreshment room assistant Beryl, a slovenly waitress, and an ancient crone with a yappy little dog, among other delights.