Brief Encounter by Noel Coward, adapted by Maurice Horspool

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BBC Radio 2, 30 October 2009

Anyone producing this piece (based on the one-act play Still Life) inevitably has to contend with memories of David Lean’s great 1945 film, with a screenplay by Coward, in which Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson kept the stiffest of upper lips in war-torn Britain, while Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto swelled to a crescendo on the soundtrack.

Anthony Cherry’s production was inaccurately described on the BBC’s website as the first since the Horspool script was created in the late 1940s (another production was mounted in 1963, with Isabel Dean and Hugh Burden in the leading roles). Nonetheless, it proved fascinating listening, chiefly for the fact that it consciously challenged our memories of the film. Jenny Seagrove’s Laura Jesson was a frustrated soul, bored with her oh-so-conventional marriage to Fred (Nicholas Farrell), but perpetually unable to express her feelings to anyone, not even Alec Harvey (Nigel Havers), the doctor whom she passionately loves. Harvey is also an emotional cripple – someone possibly capable of great love but unable to express himself. In this production the focus of attention was more on what the protagonists couldn’t say to one another: the dialogues resembled verbal fencing-matches, as Laura and Alec tried every possible means to declare their feelings without actually speaking the truth. The secondary characters – the benign café-owner Dolly (Sylvestra le Touzel), and her bosom buddy Albert (Jeremy Swift) mouthed casual platitudes, while showing a degree of sympathy when Laura said goodbye to Alec for the last time. In general, however, they were as incapable of expressing themselves as the protagonists: for much of the time the dialogue became a means of obfuscation rather than communication.

What also emerged from this production was that, for all her depth of feeling, Laura has no chance to escape. The only thing Alec can offer her is a brief moment of suppressed passion on a weekday afternoon; once their love-affair becomes too intense, he runs away to South Africa for good. While mouthing the usual platitudes – that to escape was better for both of them – Alec reveals himself to be fundamentally self-centred. All he wants is love on his own terms. By contrast Laura has no means of escape; she is perpetually imprisoned in a marriage to a husband who claims to love her but has absolutely no understanding of her feelings. She cannot throw herself under a train like Anna Karenina; in the drab of post-1945 England, people just don’t do things like that. She is doomed to suffer from failed illusions – a fate summed up by the Rachmaninov piano music, which brought the production to a close.

Cherry’s production was criticized by The Stage reviewer, who considered it archaic, peopled by characters desperately trying to emulate Howard’s and Johnson’s example by keeping their upper lips as stiff as possible. I didn’t see this at all: in Havers’ and Seagrove’s performances the protagonists wrestled with their inner feelings, but both lacked the courage to admit them. On this view Brief Encounter became less of a love story and more of a tale of repression.