Theatre Review: Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter – style meets substance in this theatrical mash-up

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Seems there is a trend afoot at Vancouver’s two major theatre companies as another theatrical mash-up takes to the stage, this time at the Vancouver Playhouse, with a fascinating re-invention of the 1945 Noel Coward penned film, Brief Encounter.

The key word here is “re-invention”, for anyone that might be looking for some sort of faithful stage adaptation of the movie is in for a huge, and pleasant, surprise.  While the words from Coward’s screenplay remain true, it is all wrapped inside a playful revision that includes everything from filmed elements to songs, as well as puppets, movement, a toy train and even a turkey baster.

The primary story remains intact with Laura (Mairi Babb) and Alec (Eric Blais) meeting by chance in the local train station.  Both married, they begin an elicit love affair after Alec, the handsome doctor, removes a speck of grit from Laura’s eye.  The Laura and Alec storyline is played pretty much straight as if they were plucked directly from the black and white film, a throwback to a simpler time where the possibility of this romantic dalliance would cause tremendous waves instead of a tiny ripple today.

Both Babb and Blais are spot-on here and even when they too become swept, sometimes literally, into the numerous fanciful moments they do so as if it is a natural part of their existence.  In one example, as we laughed at a toy train that leaves the station with Alec aboard, the conversation between the two continues as if nothing is out of the ordinary, and so it goes through much of the show as the fanciful eases up to, but never clashes, with the real world.

Wrapped around the story of Laura and Alec, are the characters that inhabit the train station cafe. But unlike Laura and Alec, they are not bound by any propriety.  Included in this eclectic bunch are some of the strongest performances of the evening.  Rachel Aberle, in her Playhouse debut may not have hit every note perfectly but she more than made up for it playing the delightfully silly café assistant Beryl.  Matched with Aberle is the equally talented Charlie Gallant as Beryl’s suitor Stanley who has some of the nicest moments with the songs.  Lucia Frangione radiates a real sexiness as the naughty café manager Myrtle and is paired with the equally funny Jonathan Holmes Albert, the conductor with his eyes, and hands, on Myrtle.  Rounding out the cast are Steve Charles, Alison Jenkins and Blair Northwood who, like the rest of the café cast, play multiple roles and much of the accompanying music on stage.

Mairi Babb and Eric Blais star in Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter. Photo by David Cooper.
Mairi Babb and Eric Blais in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter. Photo by David Cooper.

Of course, as with any good mash-up, the entire production is doubly wrapped inside a world where characters can begin a scene on stage only to step into a film, where a character can quite literally be swept off her feet suspended by a chandelier and filmed backdrops of crashing waves and winds are accentuated by beautifully choreographed ballet-like movements.  Director Max Reimer squeezes every possible bit of quirkiness and incongruity that surrounds the action and deftly weaves the two worlds that inhabit the stage at the same time.  Musical director Steve Charles adds an additional layer to the whole proceeding with some wonderful renditions of some of Coward’s songs and in the original music by Stu Barker.

Making the sometimes fantastic world this talented cast inhabits come to life are the equally talented production team of Alan Brodie, Sheila White, Lucas Cooper and Deco Dawson that have adapted the set, costumes, sound and video projections respectively from the original Kneehigh Theatre production.

Time magazine once described Noel Coward as having “a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise”.  It is also a perfect description of this Vancouver Playhouse / Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.

4 Out of 5 StarsNoel Coward’s Brief Encounter

Adapted for the stage by Emma Rice with original music by Stu Barker.  Directed by Max Reimer.  A Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production.  On stage at the Vancouver Playhouse through December 23, 2010. 

Tickets are available online or by calling 604-873-3311.

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