Lights, camera, action! The romance of classic cinema—think Humphrey Bogart—married with the immersion of live theatre whisked me off for a brief rendezvous.
It started innocently as any other theatre visit to the ACT on opening night; some murmur of excitement is always expected with the rolling out of the red carpet. Upon entering the theatre, I noticed a four person musical ensemble playing on the right…then ushers in late 1930’s attire with British accents.
Iridescent purple curtains graced the stage and when they flew up, I was delightfully surprised to encounter what appeared to be a classic film projected on a large screen. It was rudely interrupted by Laura (Hannah Yelland) and Alec (Milo Twomey) two lovers caught in a ‘Gone with the Wind’-like moment full of drama, desire and departure. What happened next took my breath and I knew I was in love with Emma Rice’s play.
Deconstructed, the plot of Nöel Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter’ is a simple cliché . However, the play is elevated to a sheer masterpiece with the strong acting, memorable songs and creative use of props and projected screens. Each element balanced to enhance all other elements, applied with skillful restraint.
This play has it all. The drama of a forbidden love affair between Laura and Alec. The comedic relationships between Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin), Beryl (Beverly Rudd), Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin) and Albert (Josephy Alessi). The projection screen displays larger than life scenes and emotions but equally thought out are the physical stage set and props. The combined result gave me the the best of theatre and cinema as expressive art forms.
Yet as I sit here in deep contemplation of why I am so in awe of the play that I had a brief encounter with, I conclude that it is the conversations and interactions between each of these elements that make this play great. It is not the “this or that” but the “in betweens”.
When the sounds of trains go by, the actors shake. When the large waves on the screen crash, Laura and Alec sway with them. And when Laura plays so passionately on the piano, the screen amplifies the drama.
In the end, I came back to reality, but the memories of sneaking in for a brief encounter with romance and angst still linger.
‘Brief Encounter’ tantalizes the senses and awakens the romantic in all of us.
Breathtaking. It’s the ultimate cinematic stage experience, told with class, finesse, and some good old cheeky Brit humour to boot.
If I had a remote control, I’d rewind many scenes. Heck, maybe I should just catch the show again when it moves to New York later this year.
Every single aspect of this show works, really works: acting, lighting, set, music and sound design, humour, the story, audience engagement… I could go on.
I don’t want to give too much away about the story or the heart-stopping visual effects (projectors are trendy these days), but let me pass on a few Timbits of spectacle.
Early, a train rumbles past Milford Junction. Cafe patrons shake, shimmy and jive as the whole place goes into hyper-vibration-drive. Amazingly, tea is not spilt.
Later, we’re submersed into water and even Champagne bubbles (a perfect pairing to swing from a chandelier!)
During the introspective and haunting finale, a simple piano solo transforms into full-blown cinematic dreams and visions.
Despite all the gizmodo, the story is told with elegance and never loses human touch. Also, characterizations are real and multi-layered. It’s not necessarily feel-good, or feel-bad. Instead it’s a serious journey into all our traditional foibles.
I was astonished from the moment I entered the A.C.T. to the rousing curtain call. A Brit hit here in San Francisco. You’ve got to see ‘Brief Encounter.’ Maybe even you’ll become good at love.
Noteworthy (potential spoilers alert)
- UPDATE: Good news! ACT announced today (9/17), the show has been extended through Oct. 11th
- UPDATE 2: Brief Encounter podcast and scenes from opening night in San Francisco
- UPDATE 3: extended again, to October 17, seven shows added
- Carey Perloff had a spring in her step and a broad smile, jumping down the stairs and kibitzing with a still-performing cast member at intermission; and she has every reason to be pleased, not only because of the opening night success, but also for her well-received production of Phèdre which played to audiences at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada
- As usual we underestimated traffic, ended up fighting 101 North to get to the city; if I had a dime for every time Loni sprinted down Geary Street to the A.C.T. red-carpeted entrance… (well, then again, maybe it’s just my imagination)
- The production heads next to St. Ann’s Warehouse for a New York run from Dec 2-Jan 3
- Did I see Gavin Newsom in an Aston Martin (cabrio)… or did someone else have their hair slicked back tonight?
- Marks the first time I’ve been served a sandwich (cucumber, English style) by an actor at intermission
- So much for fresh air; used to be, you could grab some at intermission, but sadly now you get billows of cigarette smoke
- From what I can tell, 2 front-mounted projectors are used against 2 screens; I wonder how it is for the actors dealing with the spots and now projector beams; probably makes no difference as they’re so used to the light anyways
- Brief Encounter was released in Britain in 1945
- Sir Noël Coward received a knighthood in 1970; he died peacefully in Jamaica in 1973
- ACT does a classy job with their “Words on Plays” series, a booklet available for each play that expands on the material; well-worth picking up—interesting to read, and nice showcase pieces too!
What Others Are Saying
San Francisco Chronicle
Theater review: ‘Brief Encounter’
Rice and her accomplished cast and designers use old-fashioned theatricality to bring Coward alive for the 21st century. As she did with “Shockheaded Peter” and “The Overcoat,” ACT’s Carey Perloff has given the Bay Area another great gift.
“Brief Encounter” is galvanized by ensemble energy. The tea girl (dazzling butterball Beverly Rudd) zooms about on a scooter to vamp cigarette boy Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin), while her boss (charming Annette McLaughlin) wiggles a padded bustle at dispatcher Albert (cheery Joseph Alessi, doubling as Laura’s husband). The antics are most surrealist yet grounded in character reality.
Overproduced Noel Coward adaptation Brief Encounter proves that sometimes less is more
Every moment that we spend away from the Milford Junction cafe is, to my mind, a precious moment of drama squandered.
Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter
American Conservatory Theater (ACT), San Francisco