Brief Encounter

Mar 28 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆   Imaginative

Church Hill Theatre: Wed 27 – Sat 30 Mar 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

Reassuring without being cosy, and fabulously inventive, Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s Brief Encounter at the Church Hill celebrates the possibilities of theatre while having considerable emotional impact.

The evergreen 1945 film (screenplay by Noël Coward) features Laura and Alec, a stiff-upper-lip couple both married to other people, whose chance meeting at a railway station buffet leads to a doomed romance. This was in turn based on Coward’s 1936 play Still Life. This 2008 adaptation by Emma Rice draws on both, with the addition of some of Coward’s songs.

Torya Hughes and Larry Weil. Pic Robert Fuller

Anyone who has seen one of Rice’s adaptations (such as the Lyceum’s current Blue Beard) will have some idea about what to expect – a version that treats the original with due respect and comic irreverence at one and the same time, a variety of dramatic styles, and a parade of imagination.

All of these are on display, and while there is every evidence of Rice’s style, director Jacqueline Wheble has put an individual stamp on it too. The entire auditorium is notably well used (even before the play proper starts) and the ensemble are constantly adding colour and diversion. Some of the staging – such as a memorable string quartet, a boating lake, or a crackling fire – is particularly fine, but it is all compelling and beautifully thought through.


The stage (with set design by Lee Moffat, Paul Wilson and Richard Spiers) with its large numbers of discrete acting areas, could be cumbersome, but is used seemingly effortlessly. The ballet-like way that the ensemble transform the space for the various scenes is another example of the directorial sure-footedness.

James Sutherland and Ruth Finlay. Pic Robert Fuller

Taking a lead from the original play, the central relationship between Laura and Alec is mirrored by rather less complicated partnerships between staff at the station buffet – Myrtle (Pat Johnson) and Albert (Graham Bell), and Beryl (Ruth Finlay) and Stanley (James Sutherland).

Johnson and Bell are both funny and touching, while Finlay and Sutherland are an earthy, expansive comic duo who are extremely entertaining.

There is a danger that these comic sub-plots can undermine the central romance. Modern audiences are not necessarily inclined to sympathise with the buttoned-up attitudes of Laura and Alec; but this was also true to a certain extent of those who first saw it at the end of World War II, many of whom apparently found the whole thing risible.


However there is something timeless about the story, with its struggle between desire and duty. There is more than a hint that Coward is writing about how he had to hide his own relationships at a time when they were proscribed by law; certainly his plays are often far fiercer and more radical than his subsequent reputation as a cheeky cabaret turn would suggest.

Graham Bell and Pat Johnson. Pic: Robert Fuller

One of the great strengths of this adaptation is how – just as it finds humour in the fashions and ways of speaking of a bygone age without necessarily depicting them as ludicrous – it treats the love story as ridiculous yet somehow serious. If anyone is in any doubt about the outcome, this adaptation, Romeo and Juliet-style, leaves you in no doubt from the first minute, which merely adds to the sense of tragedy.

This is aided greatly by the acting. Larry Weil’s Alec is outwardly suave yet obviously tormented; Torya Hughes similarly has a glacial aspect that never fully disguises the raging inner emotion. There is an utter believability to each individual, and a rapport between them, that again speaks volumes for Wheble’s direction.

sympathetic accompaniment

Although there are several songs, this is further from being a full-blown musical than some of Rice’s other efforts. The music is perhaps the production’s least strong suit; despite sympathetic accompaniment from Barrie Simcock, and effective chorus numbers, there is a slight diffidence and hesitancy to some of it. The more overtly comic renditions – such as Finlay’s take on Mad About The Boy – come over best, but there is an undoubted charm to all of it, even in the weaker moments.

Jessica Howie and Nicky Coombs. Pic: Robert Fuller

The large ensemble – whether shifting props, drinking tea, or adding visual interest – are all impressive, but some stand out. Paul Wilson, as both Laura’s well-meaning but cold husband and Alec’s judgmental friend, and Lynn Cameron as the gossip whose arrival is so unfortunately timed, are very fine.

There are also good performances from Jessica Howie and Nicky Coombs as Laura’s children. It is notable that (in a hyper-theatrical take on the story) the film’s most infamous line, about the lack of pantomimes in June, seems much more naturalistic than on screen.

decidedly bittersweet

While there might not be any pantomimes in June there are moments here when it seems like there might be one at the end of March. But this is entirely intentional, and part of Rice’s lively, racy, often insolent approach that still never loses sight of the story.

This approach is certainly done justice by Wheble and EPT, in a production that is fresh, fun and decidedly bittersweet.

Running time: One hour and 55 minutes (including one interval).
Church Hill Theatre, 30 Morningside Rd, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 27 – Saturday 30 March 2024
Wed-Fri at 7.30 pm; Sat 2.30 pm
Tickets and details. Book here.

Facebook: @EdinburghPeoplesTheatre.
X: @epeoplestheatre.
Instagram: @epeoplestheatre.

The Cast of EPT’s Brief Encounter. Pic: Robert Fuller


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