Tuesday, July 16

Brief Encounter – Church Hill Theatre Edinburgh

Brief Encounter started as a play called Still Life before Noel Coward translated it to the stage with his immortal screenplay. Emma Rice’s highly rated re-adaptation of Brief Encounter for the stage meets both mediums somewhere in the middle.

The original screenplay is pastiched beyond belief- even if you’ve never seen it, you will have seen at least one comedy skit. Married suburban mother Laura Jesson is passing through the train station when a piece of grit gets in her eye. Saved from potential blindness by fellow train traveler, the married Dr Alec Harvey, passions are ignited. The trouble is, it’s the late 1930s, and their burning love for each other is ruinous, so here their love story pans out against a motley crew of other travelers, clientele and servers in the train station cafe. They too are feeling the rushes of love. Meanwhile, Rachmaniov’s piano concerto rages on in the background in a melting pot of soaring joy and never ending despair and loves are realised and lost. This motif also encapsulates Jacqueline Whemble’s vision for this production.

Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s production mirrors Emma Rice’s melding of screenplay and play by creating a rich, immersive world. Director Jacqueline Whembe’s diagonal staging allows the audience to become part of the drama; we’re the audience at the cinema with Alec and Laura, the fellow train passengers in the station cafe, and the diners who watch them dance after lunch. In Brechtian fashion, the ensemble bustles in and out of the cafe, laying tables, and drinking copious amounts of tea before fashioning a boat in a lake, using a luggage pulley and blue fabric. In an almost surreal moment, one of the cast comes onto the stage with a tiny mirror ball on a stick that manages to light up the entire auditorium with glitz. Twee? Yes. Genius? Well, it works surprisingly well, given the character and approach of the overall production.

Main duo Laura Jesson (Toyra Hughes) and Dr Alec Harvey (Larry Weil) are fizzing with the drama of their love affair. One can’t help but compare them to Alec Guinness and Celia Imrie, but pedants will find them more than a match for the roles. Meanwhile, Paul Wilson provides an excellent portrayal of Fred Jesson, the left husband, giving the character a certain warmth lacking in the film. Somehow, Pat Johnson’s Myrtle Baggot stands out a mile, not only in this production but out of the whole Brief Encounter canon. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance amid all the loveable melodrama that really steals the show, with Graham Bell complimenting the performance with great comic timing. Ruth Finlay and James Sutherland complete the trio of couples as Beryl and Stanley using comic aplomb, with Sutherland capturing the comic jibes of Stanley wonderfully.

Brief Encounter has always been a wonderful snippet of broody escapism, and this charming performance adorably captures the energy of that cinematic wonder. Translating all the cinematic qualities of this deep piece of work is no mean feat, but embracing all the characters of Emma Rice’s adaptation makes for an enjoyable piece of escapism. It’s highly commendable for community theatre, and the whole production team should be proud of what they have achieved.

Reviewer: Melissa Jones

Reviewed: 27th March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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