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Brief Encounter | Royal Exchange Theatre

Brief Encounter pinpoints fleeting moments of beauty - freshly baked bread, a hug, or a serendipitous first meeting - inside a precarious bubble of love and impossible dreams. In this new version of Emma Rice’s adaptation of Noël Coward’s play, Sarah Frankcom directs this story of connection with a gentle slowness that mimics the awkwardness of budding romance. Laura (Hannah Azuonye) and Alec (Baker Mukasa) meet by chance and become entangled in a complex web of love and unattainability. Surrounding them are a circle of interconnected characters with their own romantic stories, and we follow these threads as they weave a haven of liminality amidst the busyness and noise of the outside world.

The supporting characters orbit the central pair, and yet are strikingly engaging. The endearing young lovers Beryl (Ida Regan) and Stanley (Georgia Frost), for example, bring such a lightness to the play, characterised by awkward and innocent longing. Regan and Frost are delightful, encouraging laughter and smiles in every scene they inhabit together. And yet, Alec and Laura, the couple at the play’s centre, arguably have little in common besides infidelity. It is difficult to grasp onto their characters because of their lacking personalities, and this, in turn, leads to an image of the two lovers that is grainy and intangible. 

In the slow and tender direction, Frankcom shows the delicacy of love and its discontents. One of the first meetings between Laura and Alec, when they are eating lunch together, is characterised by the silence between them and the delicate chimes of music as the food reaches their mouths. There are several moments choreographed like this – when a ripple of music highlights a small and fleeting interaction – such as during a hug or a handshake. Musical Director and pianist Matthew Malone imbues these touches with significance, showing the beauty in these snapshots of connection. 

The tables and chairs around Laura and Alec are mostly empty throughout, as the pair luxuriate in their personal sanctuary. This is dreamlike because of its potentiality; there is so much hope in beginnings, sheltered as they are from the truth of what comes later. The second act interrupts this dream. A sparkling dance sequence acts as a catalyst for the couple’s sudden and suffocating visibility, and Laura is confronted by the fear of being discovered as the outside world invades their space. Here, the live jazz band is especially hypnotising (although they are incredible throughout) as they blend seamlessly with the group dance. This focus on the ensemble, rather than an individual, works incredibly well.

However, while this musicality and thoughtful direction creates a harmonic hum, at times, the play can be much more discordant. There were different levels of chemistry in the different romantic partners, mainly due to their characterisation, making it difficult to be fully engaged in the story. Occasionally, there were moments that seemed unnecessary; Regan’s ‘Mad About The Boy’ was beautifully performed, but her bold and powerful stage presence seemed at odds with the painfully shy Beryl. An embrace of the comedy of contrast here might have been interesting, to draw attention to the character’s previous nervousness as she encounters the ferocity of these overwhelming emotions. This was flirted with at the beginning of the song, but seemed to fade away in favour of a more dramatic execution.

This exemplifies how the play grappled a little with purpose, which could also sometimes be seen in the staging. A boat is used very briefly, before a scene where the actors take off their ‘wet’ clothes and then put them on again after a few minutes. It feels rushed and unnecessary to have a significant set piece for a scene that could have been adapted to take place elsewhere. Or perhaps the outline of the scene could have stayed the same, but with the characters entering already in their underclothes with the prior events only revealed through their conversation. Then, we would only see the tender process of the pair helping each other get dressed, rather than the undressing too. 

Brief Encounter is a slow-paced play focused on two protagonists that remain at a distance from us, but it is strengthened by its players. There is an interplay between music and action, as the lilting songs highlight the fleeting yet beautiful glimpses of blossoming love. Sheltered within the busy setting of a train station, there are pinpricks of peace as the lovers waltz through achingly close but distant dreams. The band and cast members are wonderful, and the music they make together encourages a new appreciation for the small potential pleasures of everyday life. Brief Encounter plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until 13th January 2024. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Johan Persson


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