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BRIEF ENCOUNTER NOT BRIEF ENOUGH

09-10-2007

Birmingham Rep's current production of the Noel Coward classic Brief Encounter had our theatre critic Paula Elenor waxing lyrical. But Lynn Hawthorne was less than impressed.

I haven't been to the theatre in ages. I used to love going and, as a Friend of Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre, I used to go virtually weekly, seeing a whole range of plays from clever, thought-provoking two-handers to lavish musicals. But then it got very expensive and I could no longer afford it and theatre went through another 'exclusive' period.

So I excitedly took advantage of the discounted tickets available through Artsfest and booked to see Kneehigh Theatre's production of Brief Encounter at Birmingham Rep.

We walked into the foyer on Monday night (October 1st, a preview night) to see the place full of teenage students running amok. They were shouting, swearing, kicking each other and shrieking as they chased each other round, using the furniture like playground equipment. I repeat that they were teenagers and not toddlers and appeared to be under no supervision whatsoever. The Rep. staff were noticeable by their absence from the foyer floor.

We took our seats on the end of the row up in the Gods and, as usual, all the ticket holders in the middle of the row arrived later. Separately. Nothing changes!

A disparate group of musicians wandered into the auditorium and 'entertained' the students with a number of music hall songs, incongruously, and didn't seem to be aware that they were ignoring the rest of the house, which could hardly hear them.

The lights went down and an interesting use of film and screens looked promising for the evening. And then it all went pear-shaped.

The proprietess of the station buffet, in a beehive wig, was a cross between Sybil Fawlty and Marge Simpson. Beryl, the young waitress, was a Sue Pollard clone and later did a turn as Mrs. Overall from Victoria Wood's Acorn Antiques. A Where's Wally-type in a bobble hat kept, apparently for comic effect, bouncing on the trampoline not-so-well-hidden in the station coal heap and the whole escapade was serenaded by a burlesque band looking like refugees from Berlin's Cabaret.

Laura and Fred Jesson's children were dolls puppeteered very obviously on a gantry and poor old Fred spent more time moving furniture than delivering lines. Doctor Alec Harvey, played so impressively by the then-unknown Trevor Howard in the 1945 David Lean film, had all the charm and charisma of a bog-brush and Naomi Frederick's Laura just shouted.

The band came on and did 'turns' for no explicable reason and every time there was an alleged hint of passion, the actors turned themselves into waves to match the film of the incoming tide in some kind of crude sexual innuendo.

I was close to boiling point when a toy train was dragged on to represent Alec catching his train in the opposite direction to Laura, but I finally lost it when Mrs. Sue Pollard-Overall appeared covered in balloons and started to do an exotic dance.

What the hell were these people playing at? It certainly wasn't Noel Coward.

We walked out, well in advance of the interval.

We simply couldn't take all two hours ten minutes of this out-of-season pantomime, it certainly had all the hallmarks of one, or the fact that Noel Coward's play Still Life has been turned into this amateurish shambles.

My husband decided that the writer of this production should “have their pencil taken away from them” and I couldn't agree more.

To a modern audience the dialogue written in 1935 must seem stilted and the subject matter somewhat tame, but it remains eternally popular amongst romantics around the world. It is about romance and simmering passion and pleasure that is denied because the protagonists feel duty and obligation towards spouses and children, putting them ahead of their own feelings. At first I wondered what teenagers could possibly draw from such a tale, but dignity and restraint rather than instant, destructive self-gratification could be lessons that they pick up. Certainly the youths in the foyer earlier could have done with showing some restraint.

I came away feeling a bit of an old crusty, lamenting the time when you dressed up to go to the theatre because it was an occasion and showed respect for the artists on the stage.

I also lamented that one of the most enduring love stories of the twentieth century had been reduced to farce, cheap tricks and an unadvertised 're-working' that missed the point entirely.

I'm afraid, for me, it will be a long time before I shell out hard-earned cash and venture into a theatre. It's back to the classic DVDs and a good story well-told.

To see Paula Elenor's review click here. And join the Brief Encounter discussion on the Arts section of our Message Board.

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