Kneehigh Theatre's Broadway and West End hit, Brief Encounter, is coming down under and promises to take audiences back to a bygone era of romance and the silver screen with its classic Noël Coward tale, remembered as one of the most haunting love stories ever.
Brief Encounter is a 1945 British film based on Cowards 1936 one-act play Still Life – Coward wrote the screenplay. Kneehigh Theatre's production was adapted for the stage by director Emma Rice and is a mixture of the film and the stage play, with additional musical elements. Coward wrote a play about an affair. Not a sordid affair but an impossible love affair between two married, unhappy people. Who better to understand what an unacceptable affair looks like than a gay man in the 1930's – and therein lies it's power.
British actor Joe Alessi plays Fred (husband of Laura) and Albert. "As well as the main story between Alec and Laura, there are also two other love stories in the piece, that of Albert and Myrtle and Beryl and Stanley and all three couples represent three different examples/versions of love and relationships. There is also Laura's husband, Fred, who has his own story to tell," explains Alessi. "He's very much the innocent party, he has done nothing wrong at all, he is a good man: solid, dependable and with a great and cheeky sense of humour; of course Coward did this deliberately, in order to heighten Laura's guilt and shame, it would've been too easy for Laura to have an affair or leave if Fred was cruel to her, or didn't care, or bullied or beat her."
Alessi admits to beginning his acting career quite late in life – whilst in his mid-twenties. His journey onto the stage began while working as a manager of a menswear shop. "My assistant manager's mother was involved with a local amateur dramatic society; every time she came into the shop she asked me if I was interested in joining the society as they were always short of men," says Alessi, " In the end I relented and joined (partly because she said there were lots of girls there)] I was given some very nice parts to start with and apart from the fact that everyone told me I was very good and that I should maybe consider training, I really enjoyed myself. Because I was still living at home, with no commitments and my local further education college had just introduced a new Theatre in Performance two year course, I decided to hand in my notice at work and apply for the course; two years later and with the help of a grant from the county council, I won a place at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) on their three year course."
Alessi describes his most challenging role to date in a very dark play called Light with a theatre company called Complicite, he tells me that back then it was called Theatre de Complicite; Alessi had to play the part of a giant pig called Blasius who terrorises a village and who ends up eating a baby which ultimately leads to the villagers catching him and hanging him – now that IS challenging! Alessi explains: "It was difficult for a variety of reasons: apart from being strung up on stage, I had to step in at the last minute as the lead actor in the company had injured themselves quite badly, so the actor who was playing the pig stepped in to play the other part, so I had to learn very quickly, not just the role (I also doubled up as an incestuous Father) but the in-house style of the company which was and still is very specific and unique. Also Blasius was born on stage, which involved me being dragged from under the stage, covered in blood, through an actresses legs and straight into a pool of mud.. I did enjoy it but I think the most enjoyable show I did was The Play What I Wrote which was about two friends who wanted to put on a tribute show about the famous comedy double act, Morecambe & Wise. Very very funny."
Alessi has not been with the production from the start but has known the guys at Kneehigh for many years. His first meet with them was whilst working at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. " I was appearing in a stage version of The Postman Always Rings Twice in the main house and Kneehigh were doing their adaptation of The Bacchae in the studio," Alessi tells me. "I first noticed them in the canteen, they looked like a band of gypsies, brigands and pirates: pork-pie hats, loud shirts, turned up jeans, Blundstone boots and skateboards! I knew instantly I wanted to be in that club. I had also brought my long board on tour with me, so the next day I turned up in the canteen with my board under my arm and sat with them whether they liked it or not. When I got round to seeing The Bacchae, it blew me away, I had never seen anything quite like it: the imagination, the invention, the energy, the music, the mixed media; it was both hilarious and utterly terrifying and horrific at the same time. It shook me to the core and further cemented my determination to be in their gang. We kept in touch over the years and coincidentally kept working at the same theatres and whenever Emma, the director wanted me to do something I wasn't available. Thankfully for me when they asked in 2009 if I was free to "come and play" for the re-staging of Brief Encounter, I was available and I didn't have to think twice."
As well as it's UK tour, Kneehigh have taken the production to Broadway. Alessi recalls his US experience: "Of course Broadway is, quite rightly, considered to be the pinnacle of our profession but it wasn't just Broadway; just imagine for a second: we were in San Francisco for seven weeks, Brooklyn for seven weeks and Minneapolis for nine, then a short break before Broadway. We were put up in beautiful apartments in the centre of each city, treated like celebrities, given money to spend, food and drink being my other passion, I ate in some fantastic & famous restaurants, cafes and diners, visited some spectacular bars, saw historic & gob-smacking architecture, met some very lovely people and ultimately, this is the best bit, got paid for it. What's not to like? The whole thing was breathtaking, we were living the dream. In terms of my job, I felt and still feel to this day, that I've won the lottery. When people ask me about my work and what it's like, it comes down to this: Whilst I'm aware of the pleasure and pain, laughter and tears we bring to people with our stories and what a privilege that is – to transport people to another time and place, to move them – my job is a very simple one: I learn my lines, I do what the director asks me, I go where stage management tell me to go, I do my work and at the end of the night I go for a drink and/or a bite to eat with my fellow actors. It's that simple."
With this production Kneehigh Theatre merges some innovative and exciting techniques to bring this sometimes tragic story to life. much of the original action takes place on trains or the train station but Rice's vision for the staging goes way beyond the ordinary and conventional. "The way Emma and Kneehigh work is that the audience should always remember they are watching a play and that the actors are just that, actors, bringing themselves to the character, so as such one is not bringing a character to life in a 'method' sense, the writing is so utterly perfect that it does all the work for you," says Alessi. "I remember being worried about a tattoo I have on my arm and whether I was going to be able to cover it convincingly, Emma simply told me not worry about it, she didn't care, all that matters is the truth: truth of the piece and of the character."
Alessi will not say too much about the cool technology Rice and Kneehigh bring to the piece because he doesn't want to spoil it but he does say there are a few things that happen in the piece that make the audience gasp, involving characters going from reality to celluloid, various trains arriving on stage in various forms and actors flying and playing spoons!
So what is the message of Brief Encounter – a greater understanding of what it is to be in love? That romance is not dead? That love comes at a cost? To follow your dreams? To jump? Or to ultimately conform and do the right thing? Alessi doesn't know…but what he does hope is that the audience is moved, to laugh and cry, to talk to their partners about the show whilst lying in bed or sat on the edge of the bath whilst the other brushes their teeth, their favourite bits in the show and about the characters and why she said this or he did that. "Ultimately it's a very emotional, very moving piece, I honestly don't think they'll ever forget it.."
Brief encounter appears as part of the Melbourne Festival at The Athenaeum, October 9 to 27
And touring nationally:
Adelaide: Dunstan Playhouse, September 10 to 28
Canberra: Canberra Theatre, October 2 to 5
Sydney: The Concourse, October 31 to November 10
Wollongong: Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, November 20 to 23
Perth: The Regal, November 28 to December 1