REVIEW: Brief Encounter at Salisbury Playhouse

A contemporary musical and theatrical adaptation of Brief Encounter is gracing the Salisbury Playhouse stage this month, and it is an ambitious and joyous visual feast not to be missed!

**** [4 stars]


Originally seen in a short play called Still Life by Noël Coward, the restrained and heart aching romance at the centre of this plot was then developed into the iconic 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter. This innovative contemporary adaptation, brought to the Playhouse by New Wolsey Theatre and Wiltshire Creative, was written by the experimental and exceptional theatre director/writer Emma Rice (Kneehigh Theatre, Wise Children).

The story follows a devastatingly timid love affair between Laura Jesson, a suburban housewife, and Alec Harvey, a married doctor, who meet by complete chance on a railway platform in 1938. We follow them as their love blossoms and passions rise, and they must navigate the repressed complications of an extra-marital affair in 1930s Britain. The two are ultimately forced to question whether it’s worth risking everything for the sake of love.

Before this production even begins, mingling audience members are treated to live 30s era music from the costumed cast of exceptional actor-musicians in the Playhouse’s bustling foyer. From the outset, you know you’re not in for a formal proscenium arch theatre production, you know this is going to be something special…

What is presented is a joyous and innovative intersection between music, cinema, comedy and theatre, that blurs the boundaries between audience member and performer. In an exemplar of contemporary multi-media performance practice, the talented cast and crew bring to life this iconic story as never before, alight with joyful nostalgia.


© Marc Brenner


The musical interludes that intersect the montage of romantic vignettes, are truly the unexpected shining star of this production. Many of the songs have lyrics written by Coward himself that have been expertly set to music for this production, a pursuit in which Composer, Musical Director, Orchestrator AND Performer Tom Self has excelled.

A large proportion of songs in the show are performed à la Music Halls, as almost Entr’actes in front of a ruffled curtain between snippets of theatrical action, creating a beautiful vintage aura to the production and a time capsule to the 30s.

Reverently nostalgic, Brief Encounter brings to life the era with unwavering accuracy, from the musical and vocal choices to the costumes and set. Particularly successful are the clipped transatlantic accents of Hanora Kamen (Laura) and Jammy Kasongo (Alec), whose deliveries, whilst lacking chemistry at times, are straight from the film and both achieve excellence in bringing the silver screen vividly to life.


© Marc Brenner


Vignettes of Laura and Alec are interspersed and exquisitely brought to life with projections and live music. A recurring projection of crashing ocean waves looks to spill over Laura in moments of swelling passion, acting as a beautiful symbol for the uncontrollable nature of their extra-marital circumstances, the suffocating social repression of the time and her child-like desire for the freedom and escape of the open ocean.

There is a particularly beautiful scene in which the timidly romantic couple, Laura and Alec, slowly undress in front of a fire, accompanied by a bluesy, sorrowful rendition of Coward’s ‘Go Slow, Johnny’. This poignant score enhances the restrained action, creating palpable tension and gut-wrenching longing.

This exuberant rollercoaster of innovative theatre is not to be missed, and really does have something for everyone and every age. Peppered with physical humour, live music, cinematic projection, and theatre, everyone from a contemporary Kneehigh Theatre fan to a Noël Coward connoisseur will find something to love.


The production runs at Salisbury Playhouse until 22 April with tickets from only £12.

Before transferring to: New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds and finally Northern Stage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.


© Marc Brenner

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