'Brief Encounter' Leaves Lasting Impression

Photo: <b>Screen time.</b> Alec (Milo Twomey) gazes at an image of Laura (Hannah Yelland) in ACT's production of Noel Coward's 'Brief Encounter.'
Kevin Berne/Courtesy
Screen time. Alec (Milo Twomey) gazes at an image of Laura (Hannah Yelland) in ACT's production of Noel Coward's 'Brief Encounter.'

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Sometimes a brief encounter is all that it takes to set off a string of unexpected consequences. An adaptation of British writer, actor and musician Noel Coward's 1945 film, "Brief Encounter" is the latest to play San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. The show has stopped in San Francisco as part of a tour by British troupe Kneehigh Theatre. Director Emma Rice's adaptation of the iconic movie incorporates elements of both film and theater: The live stage performance is supplemented by projected footage reminiscent of the original film that serves a backdrop to the action onstage and a sort of multimedia mirror to the characters' emotions.

As in the film, Laura (Hannah Yelland), a married woman in a long skirt and tightly buttoned wool jacket, and the charming but also married Doctor Alec Harvey (Milo Twomey) meet by chance in a train station when he helps her remove a piece of grit from her eye. When they cross paths a second time, one thing leads to another and-gasp-soon they're having tea. They continue to meet secretly in the train station snack bar (or in '40s British vernacular, refreshment room), and a few brief encounters later they find themselves hopelessly, albeit politely, in love.

In appropriately British fashion, "Brief Encounter" features quite a lot of tea, remarks on poor weather and multiple appeals to sensibility. Not to mention that the sexiest scene between Laura and Alec is one in which they put on each other's clothing. In fact, the romance between the pair is oddly self-contained and detached from the surrounding environment. While the escapades of the refreshment room crowd play out in lively hues, Alec and Laura seem to be trapped in the brooding shadows of the black-and-white film, so much so that Laura's emotional turmoil throughout the play is manifested by projected footage of crashing waves.

Simply put, the affair between the Alec and Laura is heart wrenching but is not as accessible or as fun to watch as the love antics of their decidedly lower-class counterparts. Beverly Rudd's adorably bubbly but somewhat dim-witted waitress Beryl waits her tables on a three-wheeled scooter, perpetually attempts to put out milk for the ever-truant housecat and partakes in a giddy courtship with her co-worker, Stanley (the equally endearing Stuart McLoughlin). The ensemble on the whole is acrobatic, silly and has nearly mastered the art of physical comedy.

The standout feature of the production is, without doubt, the music. Almost entirely live and drawn from Coward's own compositions, the fantastic score includes such ditties as "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room With a View." The seamless arrangement of the score and every member of the cast is wonderfully musically dynamic: They rotate singing parts and instruments with a playful ease that evokes an entrancing mixture of small-theater charm and pseudo-Vaudevillian flair. The sweetness of the onstage musicians is a lighthearted foil to the emotional intensity of the Rachmaninoff concerto that, in this adaptation and the film, becomes symbolic of Laura's inner struggles as she attempts to come to terms with her ill-fated romance.

"Brief Encounter" does not have a happy ending. As with the film, this adaptation ultimately presents unsettling notion of forbidden love. But even with the multimedia element of the production, the humanity of Alec and Laura's love has a hard time reaching the audience without donning some trappings of melodrama. And this is not necessarily a bad thing-it just places the vital heart of the production not in its central romance or tragedy but in the old-timey magic and music the talented supporting cast brings to the stage.

Arielle Little is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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