Encounter** (Above the Stag Theatre)

Posted: October 17, 2015 in Theatre

enclunterThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Trying to read the subtexts of works by writers now known to have been gay can be an amusing diversion. To this end, maybe tweaking the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest or changing the gender of a key character in The Deep Blue Sea could uncover what Wilde and Rattigan really wanted to say to us. Phil Willmott’s new play is inspired by Noel Coward’s screenplay (earlier a one-act play) for the 1945 British film Brief Encounter, in which a respectable married woman (Celia Johnson) has a chaste love affair with a respectable married man (Trevor Howard), meeting every Thursday in a railway station. In Willmott’s version, the Thursday meetings are between two men – Larry (Adam Lilley) a doctor from Surbiton and the railway station manager, Arthur (Alexander Huetson). In assuming a subtext, maybe Willmott is underestimating how daring, even brazen, Coward could be. As early as 1932, when he wanted to write about a bisexual love triangle, he simply wrote about a bisexual love triangle (in Design for Living) and damned the consequences. The likelihood is that Brief Encounter was written solely to present audiences of its day with a drama that they could believe in and relate to and Willmott never makes the case for there being underlying gay themes. The film is about the social perils in 1940s Britain of breaking marriage vows and the way in which Willmott adapts it makes the gay element that he introduces seem almost incidental for most of the play. The possible intervention of the law at that time is referred to, but it is an additional factor and not part of the core story. The setting is mostly Vauxhall station and real trains moving in and out that station can be heard above the theatre. Jokes alluding to differences between the Vauxhalls of the1940s and 2015 abound and the play begins and ends in the modern day. Yes Vauxhall has changed and the gay World has also changed in 70 years, obvious facts that the play rams home repeatedly and rather clumsily. Dialogue in the play tries to emulate that of the film, a style that can seem stilted to a modern audience. Lines such as “wherever you are in your head isn’t a happy place is it?” draw giggles from the audience that cannot have been intended, but incidental characters provide more welcome amusement. The station newspaper vendor (Penelope Day) has a fine range of malapropisms and a lecherous police constable (Christopher Hines) plods his beat comically around the waiting area. Unlike in the film and for no obvious reason unless it is titillation, the couple here eventually become intimate, only to be interrupted by the local vicar (Hines again) in a scene that resembles a French farce. This feels like a bad misjudgement. The film may now seem dated, but no-one could ever question its sincerity and this play needs comparable sincerity, not crude physical comedy. Individually, the two central performances are well judged. Lilley shows us Larry’s trepidation at stepping into the unknown, his fear of losing his career, his comfortable home and his loving wife and family. He takes pleasure in mentoring Arthur, trying to bridge the gap in class and cultural interests. Huetson’s Arthur is eager to learn about classical music and taste Champagne for the first time. He is already scarred by wartime experiences and accustomed to being an outcast, his marriage is all but over and he has far less to lose, When the couple’s friendship is platonic, it is conveyed touchingly, but, when it moves beyond that stage, not enough sexual chemistry is suggested to make the relationship believable. Ultimately, neither the assumptions under which the play was conceived nor the story that it tells is wholly convincing and this encounter is not quite brief enough.

Performance date: 16 October 2015


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