Royal Exchange Theatre stay true to their Christmas traditions, playing host to a musical over the festive period. This years Christmas show comes in the form of Brief Encounter. Although the story is more commonly known from the 1945 film of the same name, it is actually based on Noel Coward’s one act play Still Life. This version by Emma Rice began life in 2007 at the Birmingham Rep, and has toured both sides of the Atlantic sporadically since. This latest staging takes advantage of the Royal Exchange’s unique in-the-round setting.
As the play begins we meet Laura (Hannah Azuonye) who is joined on stage with two men who both long for her; husband Fred (Richard Glaves) and flame Alec (Baker Mukasa). As the performance progresses we come to understand how this situation came to be, before coming full circle.
The set is simple yet effective. A mahogany style floor is framed by steel girders around the edges, leading to the train station clock above centre stage. There is a bar set up by where the 4 piece band sit, which makes up the train station cafe. Most locations are hinted at, rather than having elaborate set pieces, which on the whole works well. A revolve has been added to the stage, which is sadly underutilised, but works well in capturing the anxious turmoil that Laura feels.
No less than eleven songs are weaved into the narrative by the outstanding four piece band, who also underscore the piece beautifully. Christina Modestou has the audience in the palm of her hand with her impassioned rendition of ‘No Good At Love’. We feel every emotion through each vocal choice. I could happily have just listened to her delicious voice all night and left the theatre more than satisfied. With the majority of the music in the second act, a more even spread may have helped keep the energy at a higher level.
The second act itself is however where the show picks up, with the full cast of seven coming together for some impressive dance numbers. This really adds an injection of energy that has the entire audience grinning from ear-to-ear. The book however doesn’t always pack the same punch, which is unsurprising when it is based on such a short play. It would have been interesting to better understand the main characters motivations in greater depth to really get sucked into their story. I personally found the secondary characters more intriguing, with Christina Modestou stealing the show multi-rolling as three characters. With all but two performers multi-rolling, this was done successfully across the board by the talented cast.
Brimming with heart, this charming show brings warmth to the coldest of Manchester nights and plays at Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 13 January 2024.
Note: My ticket was gifted. Irrespective of whether a show is gifted or bought, I always ensure that my reviews are fair and based on my honest opinion alone.