“The music and Anjali Mehra’s choreography are indeed highlights”
“That’s how it all began. Just by me getting a little piece of grit in me eye”. So often in life it is one of these small, simple twists of fate that change the course of a life. Laura, a respectable middle-class woman in an affectionate but rather dull marriage takes a shopping trip to a nearby town by train every Thursday. On the same day, Alec Harvey, a general practitioner works at the local hospital. They become acquainted in the refreshment room of the railway station after Alec removes a piece of dust that Laura has in her eye. Although both are quite content in their marriages, they fall in love and embark on a ‘brief’, passionate affair. They also embark on the rocky road of love, guilt, and self-examination.
Officially titled ‘Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter’, Emma Rice’s name is featured in as large a font as Coward’s on the programme. It is perfectly justified as her stage adaptation is now almost as recognisable as Coward’s film adaptation in 1945 (based on his original one act play “Still Life”). Here, Robert Kirby’s quirky and intimate production has all the Riceisms dutifully bouncing around the stage, showering magic onto a fairly dated love story. All competent musicians and singers, the cast almost give the impression that they have wandered in from the wild shores of Cornwall and an early ‘Kneehigh’ combo. I say ‘almost’. With a couple of exceptions, this troupe sometimes appear to be a bit out of their depth with the demands of the material and they need a couple more weeks to grow into the roles. For now, though, we are too aware of their concentration on getting the words, actions, and the stylistic staging right. Once they relax into the skins of the characters, the emotional impact will have the space to break through.
Laura Lake Adebisi, as Laura, is probably the guiltiest of this and therefore doesn’t quite grab the sympathy of the audience. Callum McIntyre’s more layered Alec gives her plenty to play with, but we don’t really witness the chemistry needed that would make these seemingly above-board characters decide to delve into the depths of deception. It is the peripheral characters that come across more fully formed. They burst with energy, circling the central pair, and filling the tea bar with colour. Kate Milner-Evans as Myrtle, holds forth with a commanding performance, occasionally breaking into song with a quite outstanding voice. Hanna Khogali is a bubble of quirky energy juggling her multiple roles while deftly handling her violin and guitar. Max Gallagher gives a standout performance, again switching between roles and providing the most real and memorable moments of the show; particularly as the camp Stephen, whose flat the lovers borrow one afternoon. Gallagher captures some of the hidden tones of Coward’s original text in just a few short moments of nuanced delivery.
The music and Anjali Mehra’s choreography are indeed highlights. The two are intertwined as the actor musicians dance to the tunes, relaying their instruments back and forth. We bask in a gorgeous mix of Rachmaninoff, Noël Coward and original music from composer and Musical Director, Eamonn O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer’s closing number ‘Always’ is a haunting moment. These are the moments that linger after we leave the auditorium. This staging of ‘Brief Encounter’ is stylistic, atmospheric and a feast for the senses, but there is a detachment, and the emotional encounters are all too brief.
“The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms”
The original intention of Chekhov was for “The Cherry Orchard” to be a comedy; yet when it was first staged in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre, the writer/director Constantin Stanislavski turned it into a tragedy. If not distressed, Chekhov was very irritated by the misrepresentation of his work. Enough to put him in a mild state of depression. Ever since, there has been much discussion on the multi-layered nature of the play’s message.
Sean Mathias’ production at Theatre Royal, Windsor knows which side of the fence it lies and undoubtedly remains true to Chekhov’s intentions. With the help of a stellar cast the humour of the piece shines through and is maintained throughout the overly long two and a half hours running time. This is no mean feat, given that the characters themselves are generally not the comic type. Yet the wonderful ensemble cast bring out the flaws and the foolishness; the childishness in a seemingly mature group of people. It’s a kind of coming-of-age story for those who have already long come of age.
Fresh from the demands of his trail-blazing and age-defying Hamlet, Sir Ian McKellen is taking a step back, trying to blend into the background as the elderly servant Firs. There is a danger of his cameo becoming the lead but his generosity and sheer attention to the detail of how his character fits into the narrative lead to what is both a show-stealing performance, yet allowing his fellow actors to plunder as much as they can. Robert Daws is an absolute delight as the cash strapped moocher, overflowing with optimism and drunken charm and bouncing off Martin Shaw’s more successful but less confident Lopakhin. Shaw skilfully managed to mix a self-conscious awareness of Lopakhin’s peasant background with a cocksure sense of his own right to cut the privileged down to size (and ultimately cut down their beloved cherry orchard).
Francesca Annis, as Ranyevskaya the owner of the estate, swoops onto the stage majestically. No stranger to personal tragedy, she still seems clothed in waves of happiness. Yet Annis has the skill to show us the many tears and gashes that are covered up. The childlike way she greets her furniture as affectionately as her family is simultaneously ridiculous and tender. Her mix of tragedy and comedy is most (there’s only one way to put it) Chekhovian. But the minor characters also manage to have a major effect. Missy Malek and Kezrena James as the two sisters; and Alis Wyn Davies as the maid, Dunyasha, are names to look out for. Alison Halstead gives a fireball of a performance as the circus performer, trickster come governess, Charlotte. The only one who doesn’t quite seem to grasp the sense of fun that can be had with these characters is Jenny Seagrove, who plays the brother Gaev with a touch too much seriousness and lack of colour.
This is a piece that focuses on the characters and their interactions more than the story. After all, not an awful lot happens. In Act One, the cherry orchard is in danger of being sold, in Act Two it is on the verge of being sold, in Act Three it is sold, and in Act Four it has been sold. The sheer magic of this production is the beguiling mix of melancholy and madness; of manners and mannerisms and rambling lives that are just about keeping afloat. Much to relate to. There is tragedy everywhere, but we don’t always want to focus on that. This show, led by the inimitable McKellen et al, encompasses Chekhov’s spirit and lets us laugh at the seriousness of it all. Even if only for a couple of hours, but it is worth every minute.