Monday 19 October 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Riffing on a classic

dir-scr Phil Willmott
Above The Stag Theatre, Vauxhall • 14.Oct-15.Nov

A loose riff on David Lean's classic 1947 film Brief Encounter, writer-director Phil Willmott's play sets out to imagine the way the story might have unfolded if the movie's gay screenwriter Noel Coward had been able to write it about two men instead. So the whole thing is a bit gimmicky by definition, sometimes straining to make a witty reference or political comment. But it's an intriguing idea with lots of possibility.

It's also an involving story on its own, using present-day scenes to frame a late-1940s story about a doctor (Adam Lilley) and a station agent (Alexander Huetson) whose schedules converge every Thursday afternoon on the platform at Vauxhall (insert inside joke here), so they begin to hang out together, talking about their wives and children and trying not to acknowledge the illicit attraction they feel for each other. Until they do, flinging open a can of worms the original film never even peeks into.

This open acknowledgement of sexuality at a time when being gay was illegal adds a major kick to the story, even though addressing it head on begins to undermine the emotional power. Unlike Brief Encounter, which can leave a viewer in tears even on the 10th viewing, this play only musters a lump in the throat.

The four-person cast dive in with plenty of personality. Lilley has an offhanded, authentic intelligence and wit as Larry, a doctor with a respectable career and a family that seems happy to everyone but Larry and his stoic wife (Penelope Day, who doubles as the station's sassy newsagent). Opposite him, Huetson brings considerable masculine charm as the likeable railway employee Arthur, although he sometimes overplays his internal feelings. The chemistry between them zings from the moment they meet. The fourth cast member is Chris Hines, who plays both the disapproving priest and an alert police constable.

The nicely crafted set might be too complex for such a small space, representing a wide range of settings with more detail than was strictly necessary. But the black and white design is clever, and the lighting nicely augments the shifting moods. And if the musical underscore sometimes feels somewhat pushy, at least this theatre has finally found a show that incorporates the sound of trains rumbling overhead. And also one that's packed with themes that still echo around this particular corner of London. And the whole world for that matter.

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