– A restorative whiskey for ten pence. Banbury buns.
– Tweed coats.
– Buttoned-up sexual restraint.
– The screech of the express train. Billowing smoke.
Every ingredient of Brief Encounter is so evocative of a lost era, the kind of Brexiteers long for (the comments under the film on YouTube are a trip). Emma Rice’s stage version for Kneehigh has so much fun with all the above, taking over a real, suitably plushy cinema and filling it with a slapstick-heavy, eyebrow-wriggling, whimsical riff on a classic. Her version is aware of the weight all these objects and symbols have taken on in the 70 years since Brief Encounter opened in a newly-post War Britain. The mundane stuff of daily life in ’30s suburbia has become magical. And, conversely, a little of the magic is lost – it’s no longer impossibly, dangerously subversive to depict infidelity, to show lust in all its potentially home-wrecking power.
– (Whiskey and buns are both frowned upon by NHS guidelines, their healing powers unacknowledged by modern medicine)
– (When cold weather hits, people wear poly-wool blends, nylon, or goretex)
– (Marriage has loosened its grip, promiscuity is destigmatised, and extra-marital affairs feel different: grubby, rather than glamorous, somehow)
– (I haven’t seen anyone over the age of two get excited about an electric train, though arguably toddlers are better at living than the rest of us)
Emma Rice’s version is full of sheer nostalgic joy, especially in the elegance with which she reimagines cinematic tripes for a cinema setting. My first encounter with the film was last week, and I was delighted by it. I particularly loved Celia Johnson’s central performance, her dignity, and the way she narrated her monologues as her face contorted with pain and confusion. The swirl of Rachmaninov’s music, the way that the film’s romantic sweep and momentum is constantly punctured by the pettiness of post-war English life: gossiping friends in large hats, a husband who’s more interested in the crossword than his wife’s infidelity.
It’s also just visually beautiful, in this distinct, crisp, fine-grained way. It brings a dignity to unimaginably mundane scenes. And it has a style of psychological realism that’s a bit ridiculous, but oddly truthful too: Celia Johnson soliloquises her thoughts with the kind of mobile-faced poise everyone sort of imagines/wishes they have, and handles her grief with the dignified restraint and poetic gestures that somehow feel more authentic than the 21st century tropes of pizza and ugly-crying.
In the Empire Cinema, a huge screen swims with projected black and white backdrops that create train stations. And, brilliantly, a suburban living room that’s oppressive, flat, misshapen: Laura can’t fit into her home, she’s too 3D. Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen half-replicate, half-mock the artful performances of the cinematic original, with raised eyebrows and amped-up tremors of emotion, projected onto the screen behind them. Laura’s emotional lostness is conveyed by images of her swimming in a vast, grainy sea. And beyond all this artful reimagining, there’s so much joy: the original film’s elegant, monochrome dourness is gussied up with added comic flourishes, with jolly ukelele song-and-dance scenes to romantic ’30s songs and clowning around with tumbling buns.
Rice has reimagined so much of this story, done so much to preserve and make its effects work, that it feels churlish to complain that she hasn’t done enough to interrogate and question its ingredients. But that’s what I feel, and what stopped me feeling swept away with the scream of a train’s whistle and a puff of steam. 70 years on, the story’s working class characters are still the light relief. Francesca Peschier’s recent piece for Exeunt talks about how non-RP accents are marginalised, the stuff of comic sub-plots. And that feels extra-true here, with its boosted cast of giggling tea shop characters. It’s a story that contrasts its tormented middle-class heroes with the unbuttoned, comically extravagant sexual freedom of the working class people who man the train station and woman the teashop. It’s a world where men wear tweed suits and women simper in hats and frocks. It’s performed with an all-white cast. It’s utterly heterosexual. And the original’s darkness, the shame and subtle humiliation that Laura suffers at the hands of a repressive, conformist society, is softened a little by the romantic sumptuousness of this show’s packaging.
It’s wonderful that Brief Encounter is an ‘indie’ theatre hit – experimental, frame-breaking, challenging. It’s wonderful that a female director is making (or more accurately reviving, since this work premiered at Birmingham Rep in 2008) work that sits in the West End alongside trad old male-led theatrical warships. It’s wonderful for the ingenious tweaks it makes to a nostalgic formula. But there’s still nothing here to frighten the Brexit-voting horses. What would really make me sing about Brief Encounter is a deeper sense of interrogation of the original: of the fundamental repressiveness and establishment-endorsed narrowness of its vision of love, and of England.
Brief Encounter is on until 2nd September 2018. Book tickets here.