That Noël Coward’s one-act play has inspired numerous revivals, adaptations, and, of course, Brief Encounter, is testament to the intelligence and depth of its short script. It would be hard for any company to botch the play, and the recent production at the Michael Pilch Studio showed great capability and adeptness in its performance. 

Image by Freddie Houlahan

Brought to the studio by student led Unbroken Productions, the production stuck faithfully – and sensibly – to Coward’s vision. The set was, as expected from a black box production, simple. But attention to detail, from the well-used calendar to the fountain pen used by the cast, brought a reassuring authenticity to the train station scene. Transitions between scenes were accompanied by pleasantly unobtrusive live piano music. Costumes, too, were believable and attentive to each character’s role; Laura’s staid dresses were well counterpointed by the gaudier colours of the intrusive Dolly.  

The premise of the play is simple – two strangers (Laura and Alec) meet in a train station waiting room. A piece of grit stuck in Laura’s eye sets in motion an affair between her and Alec, which we see played out over rock buns and cups of tea each week in the station. The affair ends as Alec moves away for work, culminating in a farewell interrupted by Laura’s irksome friend, Dolly. A parallel romance between the tearoom manager, Myrtle Bagot, and the ticket-inspector Albert, brought a comedic contrast to the melancholy of Laura and Alec’s relationship. This relationship was played lightly and confidently, with an easy and seemingly effortless charisma coming from both Myrtle and Albert. The performance of Myrtle balanced well the matronly and flirtatious sides of her nature, with Albert convincingly winning her over.  

Balancing the comedic and tragic aspects of the performance is a challenge, and one that this production didn’t entirely manage to overcome. The intrusion of soldiers midway through the play was somewhat overplayed and distracted from the subtlety of the plot elsewhere. However, in the concluding scene, Dolly’s comedy hit exactly the right note. Intruding on the lovers’ final meeting, her physical comedy was superbly frustrating as it simultaneously contrasted and heightened the emotional power of the lovers’ farewell. 

Whilst the cast occupied the space well and moved fluidly around the set, certain characters often seemed to be in a needless hurry to get their words out. Given how short the play is, I don’t know where this need to rush came from. I’m all for watching lectures at two-times speed, but I found myself wanting to pause or rewind certain scenes so I could fully catch what was being said. This is a play about a bustling train station, and a brief encounter, so some sense of hurry is necessary. This shouldn’t, however, come at the expense of the subtler aspects of Coward’s writing. The fast pace also weakened the chemistry between Alec and Laura; more time could have been given to linger on the physicality of the relationship, and the nuances contained in their dialogue. That isn’t to say that there weren’t several moments of convincing romance and feeling; Alec’s declaration of love was stirring, and Laura’s final glance off stage and into the audience carried impressive emotional weight.

However, aside from some of the issues with pacing, and the impact of this on the chemistry of the romantic leads, the play felt well-contained, well-controlled, and confident in its source matter and direction. Careful attention to detail, from set, to music, to costume, constructed a scene easy to believe in and feel for; a brief encounter, but nevertheless a charming one.