Just as an ingenious adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller The 39 Steps winds down its long run on Broadway, another clever stage version of a classic movie from British cinema’s golden age arrives in New York. In this case, it’s David Lean’s 1946 melodrama Brief Encounter, which has pulled into the station at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse for a too-brief run. Writer-director Emma Rice has brilliantly reconceived Noël Coward’s story of a brief love affair between middle-aged housewife Laura (Hannah Yelland, both forthright and touching) and married doctor Alec (a solid Tristan Sturrock) as an immersive theatrical experience. It begins in the lobby, where the cast appears in projections of satirical TV commercials for products such as “La-di-dah’s Lard.” As you file into the auditorium, the actors help show you to your seat and serenade you with period songs.
And then the show begins in earnest, restructuring Coward’s original story and amplifying it with musical numbers (the songs from the Coward repertory, naturally). Rice offers a fresh take on a romance noted for its stiff-upper-lip restraint: She downplays the melodrama (and the Rachmaninoff) and heightens the comedy and the role of minor characters. As befits what is now a musical comedy, we get parallel couples: In addition to Laura and Alec, we meet gawky tea girl Beryl (a charming Dorothy Atkinson) and her cigarette-boy beau Stanley (Stuart McLoughlin, a wiz on the banjo), and Beryl’s boss, Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), and dispatcher Albert (Joseph Alessi, who also plays Laura’s second-fiddle husband).
The narrative speeds merrily along, aided by some wickedly smart stagecraft from Rice’s Kneehigh Theatre of Cornwall. Neil Murray’s costumes and versatile set smartly lay out the scene, from suburban home to railway station. And Gemma Carrinton and Jon Driscoll’s projections cleverly bridge the gap between stage and screen (the characters literally leap through a screen on the stage, then appear as figures on the film projections). These technical innovations would mean nothing if Rice and her spot-on cast were not serving the story. And that they do. This show is a pip. A-