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REVIEW: Brief Encounter at the Royal Exchange

Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter came into the world as a one-act play in 1936 titled 'Still Life' which was set in the refreshment room of a railway station. It was then adapted into the much-loved drama/romance film Brief Encounter in 1945 - Noel Coward himself wrote the screenplay. 
Fast forward 60 (ish) years and in 2007 the film was adapted for the stage by Emma Rice with additional musical elements.
Now, in December 2023, the 2007 version is taking over the iconic ‘in the round’ stage of Manchester’s Royal Exchange.  
Brief Encounter poster for Royal Exchange 2023 in the theatre itself
Brief Encounter at Royal Exchange 2023
Although I have seen a few Noel Coward plays, I haven’t seen Brief Encounter before - not even the film - so this was my first time experiencing this production in action. And I have to say, I didn’t warm to it in the first half quite as much as the rest of the audience seemed to.
Saying that, the acting was superb. Hannah Azuonye and Baker Mukasa played the parts of lovestruck Laura and Alec beautifully. In fact, the whole cast gave incredibly stellar performances. The writing was good and the music was sublime - I was particularly impressed by Matthew Malone - the onstage pianist who was also the orechtrator/musical supervisor/musical director. I found myself watching him in awe sometimes.
However, the humour just wasn’t quite landing for me and I wasn’t sucked into the story straight away. None of the characters are particularly likeable so I wasn’t really rooting for any of them or the love stories that unfolded. Whilst unlikeable characters are commonplace in Coward’s work - and often the thing that makes it so compelling - I just wasn’t drawn in before the interval.
But I do wonder if I just wasn’t the right target audience. Almost every older audience member laughed throughout and seemed to be lapping up the comedic moments - I do think it would be right up my nan’s street. So if you’re a ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ kind of person - I’m sure you’d be won over in the first half.
After the interval, thankfully, they had me. The performances continued to be wonderful. And I adored the set-up of the opening boat scene - where blossoms burst out of the clock hung from the ceiling - and branches coated in blossoms were held by other cast members.
There was also a dance sequence, combining a number of dance styles, that was utterly compelling - and was, I think, my favourite part of the show. Everyone danced beautifully and with a sizzling energy - but I was particularly captivated by Hannah Azuonye.
I was also more drawn into the drama/tension that unfolded in this half. As in the first half, I was very impressed by everyone’s performances - I particularly loved Georgia Frost’s singing and Matthew Allen showed off some very snazzy tap dancing moves, as well as playing the saxophone. And Matthew Malone continued to be very impressive - along with the rest of the band and live musicians.
The humour also started to land a bit more for me - I particularly enjoyed Albert (Richard Glaves) and Myrtle’s (Christina Modetou) banter, especially when he referred to Laura and Alec as ‘Romeo and Juliet’.   
The sound effects of the train were perfect too - and I enjoyed the way the train was portrayed - people walking with lights acting as headlights and smoke billowing across the stage. Whilst the sound ringing out made it sound like there was a real train just a few feet away.
Overall, the production was enjoyable and wonderfully acted. It just took longer to catch fire for me. But I’m sure audiences who are more into that kind of humour, would be sucked in straight away. And I’m definitely interested in watching the 1945 film now. Brief Encounter is showing until 13th January 2024. Book here: Book for the Ember & the Vixens: Festive Foxes Christmas Cabaret here:


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