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Still Life (or Brief Encounter)
Published on Thursday, 16 August 2012
3

3 stars

C venues - C aquila (venue website)
Theatre
2-11, 13-27 Aug, 3:20pm-4:10pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

Before there was the film Brief Encounter, there was a short play called Still Life.  Set entirely within a railway station tea-room, it follows the not-so-brief romantic entanglement of middle-class Alec and Laura, each of whom is betraying their family by conducting a shame-inducing affair.  Student company Dead Posh Productions have dusted off Still Life, and aim to tell the story as Noël Coward originally wrote it – setting aside the preconceptions of the movie, and approaching the dialogue anew.

Unfortunately for them, though, I’m not sure it is possible to watch the play with entirely fresh eyes.  Even if you’ve never seen the whole of Brief Encounter, you’ll surely know the big set-pieces on the railway platform: steam swirling, “Forgive me for loving you!”, all that kind of thing.  And when you have those sounds and images at the front of your mind, it’s surprisingly hard to accept an alternative version of the same lines.  The restraint shown in this production is commendable – they’ve tried hard not to ape the movie’s melodrama – but I’m afraid their lower-key interpretation of the tortured Alec and Laura leaves them seeming thoroughly wet.

Plus, there’s a lot to distract you from the main plot.  Coward’s play neatly contrasts the middle-class angst of our protagonists with the young station staff around them – who are carrying out the business of courting in an uncomplicated, and duly heart-warming, style.  It doesn’t completely help this production that the most compelling and engaging actor is cast as ticket inspector Albert; I enjoyed his appearances immensely, and seethed with secret resentment towards Alec and Laura, whose self-obsessed moping so often interrupted Albert’s much more gratifying tale.

Some things, though, unambiguously succeed.  The tea-room itself is a triumph, wonderfully evoking that timeless feel of a nationalisation-era railway station which I can just about remember from my youth.  A few of Coward’s undertones are well-played, with haughty concepts of class coming delicately through each character’s voice and demeanour.  And the moment when they decide to – whisper it quietly – have sex is properly shocking, just as it must have been in Coward’s day.  To replicate that feeling is no mean feat in our modern age, with its more flexible sense of morality.

All in all, this is a competent production with a smattering of memorable moments, and some comfortingly upbeat performances from the supporting cast.  In the end though, I’m reminded that Brief Encounter was no Hollywood remake; Coward wrote the script for both the play and the film. And the film, I think, is the one he did better.  Winding the clock back to Still Life was an interesting experiment, but as Alec and Laura themselves conclude, sometimes you have to move on.

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FROM OUR ARCHIVES

These are archived reviews of shows from Edinburgh 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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