In the United States, hardly anyone takes the train anymore. Perhaps that's why rail travel seems so hopelessly romantic, conjuring up images of missed connections, fond farewells, and figures emerging like ghosts from a platform's swirling steam. It's no wonder that train travel has long been a favorite topic for poets like Emily Dickinson and Kenneth Koch. Of course, America's fascination with the railway pales in comparison with that of Britain. In spite of high fares and constant delays, the Brits still actually use their service, all the while lionizing it through poetry, drama, and song.
The Cornwall, U.K.–based company Kneehigh Theatre's adaptation of Noël Coward's 1936 play Still Life and the famous 1945 movie based on it, Brief Encounter, provides a perfect example of how the railway continues to exert a hold on the British conscience — and, by extension, our own. But while train tracks zigzag through the terrain of this playful touring production, its buffet car is disappointingly stocked. Kneehigh's Brief Encounter is delicious but ultimately light fare delivered with a quaint British accent. I left the theater hungry for the more biting side of Coward's art.
Brief Encounter tells the story of middle-class Alec (Milo Twomey) and Laura (Hannah Yelland), who meet in the refreshments room of a provincial railway station and fall in love despite their obligations to their respective spouses and children. Destined to eke out their short time together during stolen afternoons that always begin and end at Milford Junction train station, they try in vain to reconcile their passionate feelings for one another with the realities of respectable, domestic life.
What I love about Coward's original play is the compactness of the setting. All five scenes take place in a single locale — the station cafe — that becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the plot unfolds. The drama of Alec and Laura's situation urgently plays out against the humdrum backdrop of trains pulling in and out of the station and the chitchat of passengers and railway employees over cups of tea and sticky buns. The Chekhovian contrast between the comedy of everyday life and the tragedy of the lovers' ill-fated relationship is what gives the original Still Life its engine. The play races across our hearts and minds like an express train rattling across a desert at night.
The film version isn't as taut as Coward's play, but what it loses in compression (some scenes take place in Laura's home, the Milford cinema, and elsewhere) it makes up for through the understated fervency of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson's performances and the close angles and long shadows of the cinematography.
Kneehigh's airy, banter-filled adaptation possesses little of the tight-lipped, pressure-cooker quality of the original stage and screen versions. This is at once a source of delight and the play's biggest downfall. A self-declared hopeless romantic, artistic director Emma Rice was naturally drawn to Coward's tale of forbidden love and ricocheting trains. "I love Brief Encounter because I love love," she is quoted as saying in the program notes. That romantic streak expresses itself most volubly in the production's use of music and visuals. All the members of the adept ensemble cast sing and/or play instruments. The show is filled with melodious interpretations of numbers from the Coward songbook, such as "Any Little Fish" and "I Am No Good at Love," accompanied by various combinations of ukulele, piano, drums, banjo, string bass, and accordion. Of the actors, the most musically captivating is Stuart McLoughlin, a gangly, jug-eared fellow possessed of a voice that would make the habitually tardy 10:45 to Kings Cross run on schedule. The production is worth experiencing just for the pleasure of hearing his beveled pipes.
The romance of this Brief Encounter also comes across through the use of visual metaphor and the ingenious interplay between actors performing on stage versus screen. In one of the most theatrical moments, Laura watches a huge black-and-white celluloid image of her husband calling out to her. A moment later, she steps through a gap in the scrim, whereupon a towering black-and-white Laura joins him onscreen. More heavy-handed, but equally rose-tinted, is the use of projected images of crashing waves and cloudy skies. These scenic elements hint at her state of inner turmoil and her desire to break free of artificial constraints and obey the laws of nature.
Where do trains fit into all of this? In Coward's original, trains are a source of both climactic drama and ribald comedy. But in Kneehigh's take, they take on a milder meaning. Sometimes they initiate laughs: At one point, the ensemble suddenly breaks out into the most hilariously prolonged bout of shaking when a speeding locomotive whips through the station, causing the very chinaware to fly. At other times, such as when a small toy train chugs sleepily across the stage, or when a huge train projected on a gauze curtain zips along the proscenium at high speed, they serve as vehicles for bittersweet nostalgia.
What's missing from the equation is a sense of high stakes. We have to understand what is happening to Laura and Alec, and what they stand to lose. Coward's vision of trains and stations as sources of strong dramatic tension as well as comedy provides a hint of the complexity of human relationships. But the music-hall japes and ramshackle collection of instruments, lampshades, armchairs, and assorted bits and pieces that make up the scenic design in Kneehigh's production diffuse this all-important unity of place and the powerful hold of trains on our conscience. Every moment that we spend away from the Milford Junction cafe is, to my mind, a precious moment of drama squandered.