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Review: Kneehigh's 'Brief Encounter' a playful, inventive homage

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Some of you, upon hearing that "Brief Encounter" has been adapted to the stage, will immediately roll your eyes and ask, "Why would anyone be foolish enough to compete with the memory of David Lean's classic film?"

Well, the British company Kneehigh has an answer, and it's a playfully, joyfully, often goofily theatrical one.

I first encountered "Noël Coward's Brief Encounter" at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in 2009. A Broadway run followed in 2010 and now, several years later, the latest incarnation of this much admired international production arrives at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills looking perhaps not quite as fresh as it did four years ago but still working its charm to delightful effect.

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Adapted and directed by Emma Rice, this multimedia vaudeville is based both on Coward's screenplay and his sliver of a play "Still Life," the source of the movie. "Music hall collage" might be a better description for a sui generis work blending live music (Coward songs figure prominently), British pantomime-style acting, and the most ingenious use of black-and-white film projections you're likely to see.

There are even a couple of puppets, who stand in for the son and daughter of Laura (Hannah Yelland), a married middle-class woman who unexpectedly falls in love with a stranger at a railroad station. Her plight — suburban respectability rocked by unsought passion — makes up the drama of "Brief Encounter," a love story in which two decent people are granted a fugitive glimpse of happiness before mundane reality reasserts itself.

The chance meeting occurs as the winds are picking up. Laura, having gotten some grit in her eye while heading for a train, runs back into the station tearoom for help. Alec (Jim Sturgeon), a handsome doctor, offers his assistance, and just like that a life-altering connection is made.

The ensuing romance is fraught with worry. Laura's cozily monotonous life isn't set up for this kind of plot twist. She describes her husband, Fred (Joe Alessi), as "medium height, kindly, unemotional and not delicate at all" — and she's being generous.

Domestic scenes, with cardigan-wearing Fred engrossed in his crossword puzzles while his wife tends to the children and her own feelings of neglect, stand in contrast to the intoxicating rush that occurs whenever Laura and Alec snatch a little time for their railway rendezvous. As he's also married with children, the two can only meet on Thursdays after his shift at a hospital in another town.

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Theirs, you could say, is a commuting affair, determined in large part by the train schedule. The assignations chiefly take place in a shabby tearoom operated by Myrtle (Annette McLaughlin), the louche proprietor forever browbeating her assistant, Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), while putting on airs with everyone else.

The comedy of this concessions operation is played to the hilt by the game cast. Buns and tea cups are piled atop the piano of Neil Murray's set, making the transition to song especially convenient. The supporting players leapfrog from role to cartoon role to keep the sentiment from turning into sentimentality, and their spirited musical antics maintain a high level of fizziness.

Coward numbers such as "Mad About the Boy," "A Room With A View," and "Go Slow, Johnny" are interspersed throughout along with other songs setting verse and lyrics by Coward to new music by Stu Barker.

The production, while purely theatrical, frames this tale as a cinematic adventure. Before the show officially begins, actors dressed as old-fashioned ushers banter with the audience to help establish the right larky mood.

A projected subtitle informs us that we are now in 1938 England. The wrenching parting of the lovers is the first order of business, with Laura diving into the screen and resuming her life with her stolid husband, her face streaked with tears. A stage character, she transforms before our eyes into a movie version of herself.

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The stylized treatment leavens the sadness with spry theatricality but doesn't hinder our deeper investment later on.

Some of the multimedia techniques Kneehigh utilizes may have been developed by avant-garde performance companies, but there's nothing at all rarefied about this production. The aim here is to please baby boomers who like their nostalgia served with a creative difference.

Something prevented me from getting completely caught up in the tide of Laura and Alec's romance. (The watery metaphor, incidentally, is particularly apt, as film images of the sea crashing against the shore are used to symbolize the emotion they are both drowning in.)

The chemistry between Sturgeon (a late replacement for Tristan Sturrock, who performed the role on Broadway) and Yelland still seems unsettled. They certainly make an attractive couple, but the romance hasn't yet reached full strength.

But don't let that stop you from sampling this winning production. If you love the movie (and what emotionally sentient human being doesn't?), you'll surely get a kick out of Kneehigh's ingenious homage.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Noel Coward's Brief Encounter'

Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 23.

Tickets: $59.00-$129.00

Contact: (310) 746-4000 or http://www.thewallis.org

Running time: 1hour, 35 minutes

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