An engaging theatrical chocolate box of exquisite stage-craft has arrived on our shores for this year’s Melbourne Festival. Judging by the smiles, the warm buzz and the teary-eyes of audience members at the fall of the curtain, this production is an absolute hit.

The mood of the play is established even before you step into the auditorium with four musicians (two of whom have acting parts in the play) singing ditties that conjure up the by-gone era of pre-World War Two Great Britain. The action mainly takes place in a fairly plain tea room of an English railway station where Alec (Jim Sturgeon) and Laura (Michelle Nightingale) meet by chance and fall in love. Their love is forbidden as both are already married with cosy homes and loving children. Their behaviour in continuing with the liaison is an extremely unacceptable way to behave in 1930s Britain.  As a gay playwright living during this time, Coward brings to the fore the emotion involved in love that is shunned and disallowed within society. This play is full of pathos and agony, not unlike many of his other plays, because of the reality of his own life.

We are taken in by this intense affair which never over steps into the realms of melodrama. Their encounters are never over-dramatised because of the excellent aesthetics of the production. The intensity of the romance could have easily fallen into cliché but Sturgeon and Nightingale’s scenes together are heartfelt and believable. There is puppetry, vaudevillian music, solo singing, media projection, heightened realistic acting, excellent comic timing and acrobatics. This synaesthesia between the couple’s intense brief encounters and everything else that is going on stage is what makes this production a stand out. The affair delivers so much catharsis at the end of the story.

The wonderful look and direction (Emma Rice) is to be commended. This mostly British cast, (two of the females leads hail from Adelaide, Nightingale and Kate Cheel), create characters that are amusing but are never caricatures. Annette McLaughlin plays several roles and with gusto. Her tall figure and leggy dance moves in her rendez-vous scene with Albert (Joe Alessi) was a real crowd pleaser.

The play’s structure sees the love affair between Laura and Alec run parallel with two other affairs giving way for Coward’s exploration of the course of true love. The coupling of Beryl (Kate Cheel) who works at the railway station’s tearoom and Stanley (Damon Daunno) explores the furtive steps of young love. The coupling of Albert (Alessi) and Myrtle (McLaughlin) explores a more mature match with all its repressed desires over time.
With the use of film projection the climax of the play is beautifully executed. Projections allow trains to flash by before our eyes and they also give us a window into the thoughts of the two lovers. As Emma Rice explains in her program notes, we sometimes cut ourselves short from who we really are in order to live respectfully or to be accepted within a certain societal group. Laura’s desire to wrench back parts of herself that she had neglected in the pursuit of respectable living, whatever that was in those days or even today’s society, is what her affair with Alec jolted her into doing. The black and white projections of an image of a woman swimming underwater and waves crashing against rocks was a repeated motif to remind us of her longing to pursue her passions, swimming and playing piano, and to live more in tune with her inner life.

The sound effects (Simon Baker) accompanying the action are haunting and add to the play’s emotions. Two of the actors held life-sized puppets in one scene (Laura’s children) which brought a touching scene of conversation between mother and offspring.

This production is an adaptation of Coward’s original play from 1936 and the 1945 film Brief Encounter with additional verse and lyrics by Coward himself. The original music in this production was composed by Stu Barker. Each actor sang a solo piece at different times throughout the story. One song that gripped the audience was sung by Daunno “Go Slow, Johnny” which served to enhance a very intimate scene between the main lovers.

This is a story about love and how it changes us. Brief Encounter is written by Britain’s most adored  20th century playwright. The Athenaeum Theatre is a wonderful venue for this international tour; let it take you back to a by-gone era.