A genuine thrill shot through me shortly after the beginning of the staged Brief Encounter at Studio 54, when the leading lady, Hannah Yelland as Laura, stepped through the ribbons of curtain and became a part of the set behind, and I thought "This is going to be real theater." Well, I guess it was; at least theater the way it has to be these days, filled with clever re-imaginings and tricks, conceived, directed and adapted by Emma Rice. Filmed waves crash across the screen as the tide of longing comes in on Laura and Alex, played by Tristan Sturrock. Young people create a vaudeville/pub atmosphere in pill-box hats, their instruments and enthusiasm visible, as they sing songs by Noel Coward, the original playwright, and author of the intense, riveting, and classic film by David Lean.
But for all the projections of train and trestle, stairs to the apartment where the would-be lovers are to experience their ultimate botched chance at consummation, absent is any real electricity. There is no real chemistry between the two principals, and one who knows the film yearns for the anguished sexual repression of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, who so perfectly embodied passion unexpressed, and tragically unfulfilled.
I had looked forward to seeing this production more than any other in this disappointing, barren season. With all the songs there aren't really in any of the alleged musicals presented one the no longer so Great White Way, it was nice to hear a few of the old Coward too-clever songs, some of their most arch lyrics mercifully left out ("Will it ever cloy?" in "Mad About the Boy," for example.) But I think the Old Master himself would have argued against the atmosphere engendered by their inclusion. The movie has lasted as long as it has, to be rented forever by romantics, because of its brilliant, understated depiction of unexpected love that comes to totally unlikely candidates, and the genuine tragedy of its never being fulfilled. In this production, inventive as it is, we lose the real sense of loss. Ms. Yelland is a bit too pretty, and Mr. Sturrock stirs not at all. Tight-lipped and anal as the two film characters were, the perfect expression of Aulde English inhibition, so that their need for each other feels palpable, and its not happening touches viscerally the viewer, in this staged adaptation, the audience, at least this member, felt nothing. And I'm really sorry about that.