I love Noël Coward’s work and have seen his 1936 short play Still Life – later made into the film Brief Encounter – a number of times. I was intrigued to hear that Above the Stag Theatre would be showing an adaptation of this play by writer and director Phil Wilmott, with a twist: Encounter would tell the story of an illicit affair between two gay men in 1947, forbidden not only by society, but also by law.
The performance space under the railway arch near Vauxhall is small, but the set designers have made the most of it, evoking at different times a station waiting room, a kiosk on the platform, a park and a church. I really liked the attention to detail – there is a poster for the film Brief Encounter on the wall, and there is also a sign for Vauxhall Station.
Encounter’s central love affair is between a suburban doctor (Adam Lilley) and a cheery stationmaster (Alexander Huetson); the two meet when the stationmaster visits the doctor for a check-up. The play is interesting because the characters not only have to contend with the fact that their relationship is forbidden, but also with the fact that they are not even of the same class: for instance, the doctor tries to introduce his lover to classical music, with mixed results. Both actors give fine, believable performances, capturing the duo’s love for one another and also their terror of being discovered. In one purposely uncomfortable and important scene, the two go to a local park together but are discovered by a policeman, whose coarse comments appall the doctor in particular.
Unfortunately, there are some comic moments in the production which I thought didn’t work given the overall tone of the piece. This is the only really negative thing I can say about the production: overall I loved it but the jokes jarred.
The play is bookended with short scenes from the present day, showing the same two actors in a happy relationship. I liked the sense of positivity that these scenes gave to the production, emphasising how things have changed since the 1940s. Overall a very enjoyable evening.