“I can’t look at you now ‘cause I know something…”
…that being that the breaking of the fourth wall at The People’s Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was so complete you only realise it once Dr Alec Harvey (played by Sam Hinton) speaks the eponymous line from Noël Coward’s Still Life/Brief Encounter.
It was a blessed relief that the production was not a cut and paste job of the 1945 David Lean film, that said Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard were very much in evidence as inspiration – especially in the softness of touch Hinton, Sara Jo Harrison (Laura Jesson) and Sarah Scott (Myrtle Baggott) gave to each of their characters. The exploration of Myrtle’s and Albert Godby’s (played by Paul Carding) relationship was particularly naughty in its astuteness, adding a great deal of lightness to the overall feeling of the play. I am more than sure that Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey will be sharing a particularly wry, proud smile from the gods throughout the rest of the run as the characterisation of their story in the film isn’t quite as time linear as David Lean hints at.
Staging, music and dance
Staging was simple which allowed the small space provided to be used to its fullest effect, scene changes were accompanied by music, songs and a smattering of dance which was another surprise for anyone who might enjoy the film or even dare to think that they might know it backwards. There was even a delicious hint of Inside Number 9’s “A Quiet Night In” episode, which uses the same Rachmaninoff as Lean/Coward.
The greatest joy of the music though was watching Shona Newey’s and Tony Sehgal’s understated but firm direction of the Band, the placing of whom was interesting too – the Double Bass and Drums being largely hidden from view allowed for the acoustic in the auditorium to be used superbly well. If I say any more I may give everything away!
The relationship of music, staging, scene setting and the spoken word is symbiotic; I would caution though not to have an interest in cake when sat in the front row as you might gain Myrtle’s attention. Thinking on Myrtle and Albert, perhaps the greatest single point – at least from my perch in the seating arrangements – about the staging was the Refreshment Room. It really is quite difficult to explain how perfectly captured it was by a simple well-stocked shelf, an upright Piano, a bead curtain and a green/grey light at the intermission.
If I have two gripes, the first is that I am not sure quite how much Laura and Fred Jesson’s children having polystyrene heads adds to their puppets as aside from this they are superbly made and performed by Stewart Dives & team. I remember seeing a performance of Tristan and Isolde at the Norwich Puppet Theatre where all of the minor characters heads were made from turned wood, it would have added something extra to the scene where Laura returns home to find her son unwell following a scuffle with a car if this had been the same here. It also made the lines from Bobbie and Margaret Jesson about the pantomime (possibly the most underrated in the entire play/film) less tangible. And yes, Margaret’s “My birthday’s in June, there aren’t any pantomime’s in June” is my favourite line.
Second, it was a shame to miss out on Alec’s line about the ‘Cellist at The Grand – I say that as a ‘cellist myself and someone who from a very young age found that line rather more than accurate, possibly too accurate, about friends’ teachers. Mind you, that is also me wishing to see the same full crew performing a version of 1956’s The Green Man (Alastair Sim) and then The Lady Killers (Alec Guinness) as a follow up.
For a very first visit to The People’s this was not only an exceptional performance, but serves also, per Anna Dobson’s Director’s notes, as a “love-letter to the film…[making] for a much meatier theatrical experience and not just an impossible love story.” The very reality of the scene setting draws you in, it will also most likely not quite let you go once you leave your seat for the final time most especially if you happen to have spent more than a while at The Great Central Railway. Oh, and, if ever you want to know what a truly fantastic first night looks like then look no further (and you will have to pinch yourself repeatedly throughout the performance/s you see) than this amateur production of a film/play we all think we already know. Karen Elliott as Dolly is magnificent, to say anything further would be to do all in that scene a disservice – go along and see for yourself.
To paraphrase both Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey: I suppose it is a good thing to be uncomplicated and no, you should not mind very much at all if you were to be invited to this picture at The People’s!