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Brief Encounter
Brief Encounter

Arena Theatre presents Noel Coward, adapted for stage by Emma Rice's

Brief Encounter

Directed by Paul Nelson with permission from Samuel French

Noel Coward's Brief Encounter is remembered as one of the most haunting love stories on screen ever. Emma Rice, Joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre, has adapted Coward's classic 1945 screenplay, and the one act play Still Life, on which it was based, into a richly theatrical, imaginative and vibrant piece for the stage.

  • Performance Dates
  • Sat, 12 Sep 2015 19:30 at Shaftesbury Arts Centre - Tickets available here
  • Sat, 19 Sep 2015 19:30 at The Mowlem Theatre, Swanage - Tickets available here
  • Sat, 26 Sep 2015 14:30 at Shelley Theatre, Bournemouth - Tickets available here
  • Sat, 26 Sep 2015 19:30 at Shelley Theatre, Bournemouth - Tickets available here
  • Fri, 02 Oct 2015 19:30 at Dorchester Arts - Tickets available here
Blog Updates
Paul Nelson - Auditions      17/02/2015

Read through for this production will be on Sunday 22 February 2015 at Pokesdown Primary School, starting 7.30pm. Auditions will be a week later on Sunday 1 March 2015, same time and place. Please come to the audition with a song prepared. You can bring a backing track if you wish. I must stress that this is not a musical, it is a play with music so acting skills are equally as important as voice.

John Newth - Scene One

Messing with a classic is always dangerous, but this adaptation of one of the most loved British films of all time combines faithfulness to Noël Coward’s original with entertaining embellishments that do not jar. The basic story is the well-worn one of boy meets girl and they fall passionately in love. But this is 1938, they are both married, middle-class and approaching middle age, and those sort of people at that sort of time weren’t supposed to fall in love, so it comes to the only end that it can.

The main change in Emma Rice’s adaptation is the addition of musical numbers, but it remains a play with music rather than a musical. All the lyrics are Coward’s, although the music has been so re-arranged that the Master might not recognise some of it. Most of the musical insertions work well, except for the leading man, Alec, singing ‘A room with a view’ immediately after a scene of high emotion with the object of his love, Laura – the lyrics fit but the lightness of the music doesn’t.

Paul Nelson’s direction is always interesting. The audience is ushered to its seats by members of the cast who are wearing smart front-of-house uniforms and who burst into song as a medley of Coward’s best-known numbers is played before the start of the show: all good fun. It is more questionable whether it is a sensible plan to start the play with Alec and Laura entering through the auditorium and speaking dialogue that pretty much gives away the plot, followed by a preview of the play’s final scene; not everyone will have seen the film. It is a good idea to have a screen at the back of a very basic set indicating by use of photos and videos exactly where each scene is taking place, and providing the backlighting for effective silhouettes when the stage is dark.

The hard-working supporting cast show their versatility, as well as their ability to make quick costume changes, by playing several parts each. Most notably, Simon Meredith switches without missing a beat between Laura’s dull-as-dishwater husband and the ebullient ticket inspector who is courting the refreshment room manageress. As that manageress, Beverley Beck serenely morphs at short notice into Laura’s daughter and a nosey neighbour.

A romance between two young people, another railway employee and a waitress, attractively played by Jack Edwards and Kim Fletcher, forms a poignantly uncomplicated contrast with Alec and Laura’s more intense but more painful relationship. Perhaps the musical number that works best is ‘Mad about the boy’, sung by Kim Fletcher, who has a lovely voice.

However active the supporting cast, the play is carried by the two leads. Alec is as a thoroughly good egg, solicitous and charming; Jeremy Mills conveys all that but also leaves us in no doubt about the sincerity of his feelings for Laura. Joanna Dunbar is outstanding as Laura. She suffers much more guilt than Alec does about the situation – a typically shrewd Cowerdian insight – so has to display a greater range of emotions. There is a beautifully conceived scene where she is lifted high by the other members of the cast so that it looks as if she is flying, her spotlit face radiant with happiness, yet a few moments later we are moved by her despair and self-disgust as the lovers’ attempt to consummate their affair is thwarted. This is a brilliant performance.

Brief Encounter is at the Mowlem, Swanage, on 19th September (7.30), Bournemouth’s Shelley Theatre on 26th September (2.30 & 7.30) and Dorchester Arts Centre on 2nd October (7.30). Catch it if you possibly can.
Dianne Brown - Nerve News

The play is Arena’s take on the adaptation developed by Emma Rice at Cornish theatre company, Kneehigh, from the famous love story directed by David Lean in 1944, and incorporated many of Noel Coward’s classic songs.

Established in 1983 by John King and Ian and Haley Knight, Arena is an amateur theatre group made up of local Bournemouth residents. Over the years, the company has seen more than 130 members take to the stage to perform such plays as Macbeth in 2014, Calendar Girls in 2012 and Blood Brothers in 2010. With an age range of 10 to 65, the company welcomes aspiring actors of all ages and abilities and aims to stretch their members artistically, whilst giving directors the opportunity to express themselves freely using whichever material they like.
I knew I was in for a treat as I entered the stage hall and was greeted by a team of ushers dressed brilliantly in bright red jackets with black buttons and red brimless hats. I was shown to my seat by a lovely young man and settled down excitedly waiting for the show to start.

All of a sudden and to everyone’s astonishment and confusion, the people I had assumed were theatre staff burst into song. After consulting my programme, I understood that they were the cast and I chuckled at my own naivety. We were treated to a number of songs including Sweet Little Café, Dance Little Lady and Mrs Worthington as the cast sauntered around the room, winking and smiling at the audience. Their voices mixed together in a beautiful tapestry of harmony and each tune was met with roaring applause at its climax.

There was another surprise in store as a man and woman jumped up from the front row and began declaring their forbidden love for each other. However, there was no need to be alarmed as they were the main characters, Laura Jesson (played by Joanna Dunbar) and Alec Harvey (played by Jeremy Mills) who had been snuck in as we entered without detection. With such a cleverly designed and exciting opening, I was very much looking forward to seeing what other surprises lay ahead.
Paul Nelson, Director of Arena Theatre, emphasised that the show was ‘a play with music’ and absolutely not a musical, which is why he insisted on using ‘actors who could sing’. The music for the play is made up of both pieces by playwright, composer and producer Noel Coward, including Beryl’s heartfelt Mad About The Boy and Stanley and Beryl’s jaunty duet of Any Little Fish, as well as songs developed by Emma Rice at Kneehigh from the words of the script. The cast belted out the lyrics “the bitterness of the last goodbye” in such a powerful and goosebump-inducing way that it almost brought me to tears.

The story of Brief Encounter is an emotional one and something, I’m sure, we can all relate to. I was taken on a rollercoaster of highs and the lows; from Laura and Alec laughing together in the cinema, the boathouse scene where, despite acknowledging their love for each-other, they can never be together, to the heart-shattering final scene in which Alec leaves. Jeremy and Joanna played the roles fantastically, carrying the audience with them through their desperate confessions of love and it was this raw emotion that meant they worked so well as a leading couple and made the story so relatable.

On the brighter side, the show struck the perfect balance been tragedy and comedy, with the funny moments having me howling with hearty laughter. Mrs Myrtle Bagot was played by the hilarious Beverley Beck and was a particular favourite of mine, especially when she rattled the tea cup on a saucer she was holding as a train went past. From the occasional accidental euphemism, telling Beryl, her assistant, to ‘get her chops around’ a pastry and deterring the playful advances of Albert Godby (played by Simon Merdith), Mrs Bagot was full of fun and an absolute pleasure to watch. She even mastered that English voice used by Joyce Carey in the original film.
Beryl (played by Kim Fletcher) was a charming, cheeky young lady whose youthful sprightliness drew an intense likeability to her. Kim played a number of characters in this production including Dolly Messiter, a character in whom I saw a lot of myself; she’s the chatter box with an abundance of energy and a happy-go-lucky nature that everyone finds slightly irritating but still loves. Kim’s versatility as an actress was impressive and shows how the company is achieving its goal of developing its members’ acting ability.

The dynamic between Beverly and Kim was superb; they bounced off each other and their fondness for one another was clear. This was epitomised during the restaurant scene in which Beverly and Kim played a new set of characters, Mary Norton and Hermione, a pair of snooty ladies sporting fur coats, garish fascinators and pinched mouths. They performed every move in comical unison, from eating their lunch to strutting off stage. They brought a zest of freshness to the performance and had every audience member in stitches.

There was a lot of aspiring talent in this play. Beryl’s love interest, Stanley was played by Jack Edwards, a young actor that will go far. His passion for theatre came through in everything he did, from being mischievous with Mrs Bagot to playing a rowdy Scouse solider; this young man has a lot of talent. Equally as talented was Jack’s soldier buddy, Bill, played by Daniel Withey, who also doubled up as Laura’s son Bobbie. Seeing a grown man in high-knee socks and a childish scowl was definitely an interesting point of the evening.
The visual aspects of this play were truly special, mainly since it was the first time they had ever been used, something that director Paul was very excited about. The opening scene saw the first use of visuals, with the backdrop screen showing a black and white photo of a café. These backdrops were used throughout and included a living room, a cinema audience and a busy restaurant. They worked brilliantly at setting the scene and created a really modern feel to contrast against the old age settings of the play.
Film clips were used very cleverly in the play to represent flashbacks from Laura’s childhood and the seeing off of Dr Harvey’s train. The most interesting use of film clip showed Dr Harvey and Laura in a rowing boat whilst the cast gathered on stage in complete darkness and used physical theatre to create the pattering of the rain. The film clips were used sparingly, at only the most crucial moments and this is what made them so effective; it brought the play up to the modern age and the actors were able to interact with technology in a way that brought a more omniscient feel to the story.

Speaking with the director before the show, he told me that he wanted to create a piece of work that wasn’t ‘theatrical wallpaper’ and would leave the audience with something to think about as they left the stalls and headed home. I, for one, can proudly say that this play spoke to me in a way I have never experienced before – a true masterpiece created by a fantastically talented cast, crew and director.

If you would like to experience the brilliance of Brief Encounter for yourself, the Arena Theatre Company will be at the Shelley Theatre in Bournemouth on Saturday 26th September for a maintee and evening show. You can buy your tickets online, alternatively, you can telephone the theatre on 01202 413600.
Jeremy Miles - Do More Magazine

Full marks to Arena Theatre for taking one of post war Britain’s favourite big screen weepies and turning it into such an enthusiastic and fun evening.
Without Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson or indeed the peerless Eileen Joyce playing Rachmaninov to highlight the emotional journey of the star-crossed lovers, recreating anything remotely resembling David Lean’s 1946 romantic masterpiece could have been a very big ask indeed.
Arena rose to the task with aplomb. A fine cast headed by Joanna Dunbar as bored wife Laura Jesson and Jeremy Mills as Dr Alec Harvey, the frustrated GP she falls in love with after a brief encounter on a railway station, delivered a production that stayed loyal to the original story while displaying a distinct character of its own.
Spirited and imaginative direction from Arena artistic director Paul Nelson and music and songs based on the delightful English ditties of Noel Coward (who also wrote the screenplay for the original film) bring levity and humour to this highly-charged human drama.
The production works particularly well by establishing a social context for the couple’s shocking liaison. Both are middle class, middle aged and married to other people. Dodgy at anytime but completely unthinkable in 1938 when the action of this play takes place.
To set the mood audience members are even shown to their seats by uniformed ushers singing Coward songs from the era. The simple but effective stage set seamlessly switches from railway cafe to Laura Jesson’s front room, a posh restaurant and even the local cinema. A back screen shows images and videos that evoke the style of the time and occasionally add to the story of two people desperate for love but trapped by unfulfilling lives and relationships.
Laura Jesson’s dull husband Fred is played by Simon Meredith who like several of the cast also appear as other characters. In this case he morphs very effectively into jolly station master Albert Godby who has designs on bossy cafe manager Myrtle Bagot played by Beverley Beck. This entertaining little relationship is one of number of subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) sub-plots. Jack the lad station worker Stanley (Jack Edwards) meanwhile has designs on cafe assistant Beryl (Kim Fletcher). The railway staff’s innocent flirting continues as Laura and Alec desperately try, without success, to disguise their passion for each other. Eventually they are suspected and then almost discovered as a secret meeting in a friend’s flat is interrupted. Laura is left ashamed and humiliated. Circumstance brings their burgeoning affair (nothing has actually happened) to an end. She briefly contemplates suicide but dutifully returns to her husband. Brief Encounter is a rollercoaster of emotions. With this production, based on an adaptation by Emma Rice of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre, Arena have done a fine job.
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