Brief Encounter review – sparkling revival of Emma Rice’s forbidden romance

Emma Rice’s esteemed adaptation of David Lean’s classic 1945 film, Brief Encounter, that merged elements of the Noël Coward one-act play, Still Life, was first performed by Kneehigh in 2008 and widely praised for its innovativeness. Thirteen years later, in a new production directed by Robert Kirby for The Watermill theatre, it manages to be just as engaging.

After an accidental meeting in the train station cafe, reputable housewife Laura and local doctor Alec tumble into a passionate, forbidden love. Both are married, but neither can deny the chemistry. “You could never be dull,” Alec tells her, transfixed. Absorbingly played by Laura Lake Adebisi and Callum McIntyre, we root for their electric partnership, despite their infidelity.

In this sparkling revival, the couple’s love feels urgent and all encompassing. Their stolen time together moves quickly, but each moment is savoured. They beg for the refreshment room to remain open “a few minutes longer”. The days between their weekly meeting feel laboured and slow. In the scenes Laura shares with her husband, Fred (Charles Angiama), the sound of an unhurried, ticking clock underscores their conversation, while her time with Alec is accompanied by wild, romantic music played live on violins. The contrast between the relationships is stark.

In Kirby’s production, everything looks polished. The supporting actors swap between characters, costumes and a variety of instruments seamlessly. Kate Milner-Evans’s Myrtle Bagot is bursting with personality as she pours out cups of tea for comedic effect, with her short embodiment of a spoilt child, Margot, being another of the night’s standouts.

Coward’s songs, too, feel like a natural extension of the spoken drama. Hanna Khogali’s rendition of Mad About the Boy, as the giddy Beryl, is a marvel – her high notes impressive but never too showy.

Staged within a notably slick moving set designed by Harry Pizzey, the 1930s world gracefully comes alive. When a translucent curtain, echoing unforgotten memory, is drawn between the lovers in the play’s final moments, it is genuinely moving. This Brief Encounter is not one that will be forgotten fast.