Reviewed by Matt Forrest
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
In 1945 Brief Encounter hit the British cinema screens for the first time. Based on the one act play by Noel Coward called Still Life and directed by David Lean, the film was a huge commercial and critical success. It regularly features in polls as being one of the greatest British films of all time.
Over the years there have been numerous radio, TV – and even an operatic version of this timeless classic. There has also been numerous theatrical offerings too and this latest production has come from Director Paul Robinson adapted for the stage by writer Emma Rice. This production sets out to captivate audiences of all ages at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, where it embarks on a three week run.
After a chance meeting in a train station cafe, a local GP, Alec (Pete Ashmore) and respectable housewife, Laura (Anne-Marie Piazza) set out on a journey of passion and forbidden love; doomed to fail from the start. Both are married, both have children and both are upstanding pillars of the community. Will the world around them, and more importantly they themselves, accept the love they have for one another?
Key to the success of this fabulous production is its pacing; the story has time to breathe. That, coupled with the undoubted chemistry between the two leads, ensures you care about the two lovers. You feel their pain, anguish and like our “Romeo and Juliet”, as one character points out, you want a different outcome for the two, even though you know it’s never going to happen. There’s brilliant storytelling, excellently executed throughout this production which is packed with emotion and a great deal of style.
The really production works if you fully invest in the predicament that Alec and Laura find themselves in; Pete Ashmore and Anne-Marie Piazza draw you in perfectly. Nothing flashy or over-the-top, just raw, honest emotion. They both capture the fun and tenderness their tryst has produced, as well the guilt and hurt that it also brings.
It’s not just the Alec and Laura affair that’s in play here. There is also the blossoming romance between cafe owner Myrtle Bagot ( Natasha Lewis) and ticket inspector Albert Godby (Robert Jackson), as well as the courtship between cafe worker, Beryl, (Lara Lewis) and train porter Stanley (Joey Hickman). These are both played mainly for laughs bringing lots of joy throughout the first act. It’s during act two where the drama kicks in.
The supporting cast like the leads are superb, not only playing the aforementioned characters, but numerous other characters who, great or small, all impact Alec and Laura’s relationship. In addition to this, the cast along with musical director, Alex Weatherall, perform some Noel Coward and Simon Slater penned numbers including a stunning rendition of Go Slow Johnny and a slow, haunting performance of A Room with a View.
Other musical highlights included a version of George Formby’s Leaning on a Lamppost at the start of the show which brought on a pleasing, impromptu audience sing-along. As well as a fun saxophone trombone face off between Jackson and (Natasha) Lewis.
Setting the play ‘in the round’ is more a blessing than a curse. With most of the action taking place in the train station cafe, stage designer Jessica Curtis has created a multipurpose set: the cafe’s chairs, counter piano, and serving counter double up as a restaurant, and family home. The ‘in the round’ setting gives the production an energy and vibrance, some genuinely unexpected and innovative touches. My only small complaint is that sometimes the vocals on some of the musical numbers were a bit of a challenge to hear.
This is a timeless tale told with heart, soul and plenty of style, well worth a ‘little’ dalliance to the theatre.
Brief Encounter is at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton until 5th November. Tickets available here.