Gay Twist On Noel Coward's Brief Encounter
Above The Stag Theatre in Vauxhall's latest show is a same-sex version of Noel Coward’s classic 1947 film Brief Encounter (in which a respectable married doctor and a suburban housewife fall helplessly in love over clipped courtesies at a rail station).
Encounter is still unmistakably Coward’s story of a forbidden and frustrated love between decent individuals, and the railway station setting — explicitly Vauxhall in this version — is also the same. But the drama may breathe more easily in this looser adaption. Rather than drawing constant parallels with the famous celluloid performances by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, the mind is freer to engage with the story on stage.
It is different from the film in key respects. Sexuality is the obvious one, but class is more interesting: writer-cum-director Phil Willmott has his respectable doctor fall in love with a coal-miner turned station master. This paves the way for an exploration of how men from different backgrounds might have dealt with what was then seen as an 'affliction'.
The station master, in a barren marriage, is readier to trust his body. With his career, young son and terribly nice wife, the doctor has both a stronger sense of social morality and — as his would-be lover points out — much more to lose. The doctor also struggles to reconcile his homosexuality with a middle-class sense of entitlement and social superiority, as becomes clear in a crucial scene when the lovers are surprised in a park by a policeman.
The chief difficulty of pulling off this kind of tragic love story is making it credible. This is particularly true in a space as intimate as the railway arch that now hosts Above the Stag (it moved from a pub in Victoria in 2013). On the whole, this production rises to the challenge. Adam Lilley as Dr Lawrence Marsh (“call me Larry”) flits believably between wonder in love and worry in life, and Alexander Huetson is also convincing as a down-to-earth working man who accepts his fate. Penelope Day and Christopher Hines both move seamlessly between their middle-class and working-class supporting roles. The set design by David Shields makes the most of very limited space.
Perhaps the least successful element of the script is its fondness for vaudevillian winks to the audience. These may raise a laugh, but sit uncomfortably with the earnestness of the story; breaking the fourth wall does not work here. Another departure from Coward’s very straight original is a framing device, which we felt worked better.
Encounter highlights how much has changed since our parents’ and grandparents’ day in a happy ending that shows the two leads in a modern-day relationship. But there is an intriguing role reversal: it is now Dr Marsh who is the more open one. Middle-class entitlement and homosexuality are no longer mutually exclusive — on the contrary.
Encounter is playing Tuesday to Sunday at Above the Stag in Vauxhall until 15 November. Tickets cost £19.50. Londonist saw the show on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 18 October 2015