REVIEW: Lasting impressions with Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Brief Encounter.’

The cast in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of 'Brief Encounter.' (Photo by Jim Cox)

The cast in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of ‘Brief Encounter.’ (Photo by Jim Cox)

When a British newspaper poll was conducted to determine the most romantic movie of all time, “Gone with the Wind” came in third and “Casablanca” came in second. But the winner was Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter,” the story of an impossible love affair between two married people who meet in an accidental moment and develop a casual friendship that turns into a passionate love both know can’t be sustained.

Noel Coward was one of the most prolific playwrights of the 20th century. He was also an actor and composer, singer — he did it all. He also had a fascination with adultery, a recurrent theme in so much of his work. “Brief Encounter” is the blending of a play created from David Lean’s 1945 movie based on Coward’s 1935 one-act play, “Still Life.” As staged at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh, “Brief Encounter” is a delightful mixture of musical hall cabaret and the story of a doomed love affair. Exciting love affairs, the kind that sweep two people together, are often unplanned. More importantly, illicit love, while creating an emotional vertigo, is so romantic because of the danger of being discovered and the accompanying guilt and painful knowledge that it will end in heartbreak. And if it doesn’t end in heartbreak, there is the threat that it will end as a cliché.

What is so smart about the production at the Shakespeare is the wonderful blending of a group of talented musicians who work in various capacities at the train station and the station’s refreshment room where Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Jim Sturgeon) meet. Alec, who helps her remove a cinder from her eye, is an idealistic doctor who comes into the city one day a week to consult at the local hospital. Laura comes in one day a week for some shopping and to attend the movies.

Yelland and Sturgeon are believable as normal people in their 30s or 40s who portray normal people at a turning point in their lives. She has two children and is in an affectionate though dull marriage. Alex is also happily married with children. It all begins, innocently, and then grows into something much deeper, a passionate, unexpected love that is hard to overcome.

It all ends more with an unresolved whimper than with an emotional bang. Alec is off to South Africa to work in a hospital with his brother, and Laura returns to her husband who has noticed she has been different over the past few weeks. He doesn’t know about her affair and probably never will, but in a simple poignant statement, he thanks her for coming back to him.

For a brief moment at the end, it seems that “Brief Encounter” will follow in the footsteps of “Anna Karenina.” It does not, though there is a moment when Laura seems to contemplate throwing herself in front of a train. The Shakespeare production comes to Washington from the Cornish theater company Kneehigh with its talented creative team led by the director Emma Rice who cleverly blends the musicians into the production. They have fun entertaining the audience with their antics and musical abilities as well as delightful couples exploring uncomplicated love.

The production also includes a couple of creative visual elements. A clever blending of film and staging involving Laura walking through a screen and immediately appearing on the black-and-white movie projected there brought appreciative gasps from the audience. At another point, Laura’s children appear as life-sized puppets on an elevated catwalk at the back of the stage. The realistic puppetry brought laughter from the audience, and maybe relief that they weren’t real-life, posturing child actors.

No one is conducting a survey at the Shakespeare to determine if “Brief Encounter” is the most romantic play the audience has ever seen, but it is vintage Noel Coward — the story of a love affair too painfully real to not be tragically romantic.

Brief Encounter” continues through April 13, 2014 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets start at $30 and are available at 202-547-1122 and online here.

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