In a Brief Encounter with Isabel Pollen, Theatre Editor Daniel Perks uncovers a timeless, ageless love, a romance that has revived Noel Coward's production by Emma Rice and Kneehigh Theatre:

There’s something evocative and timeless about walking into a cinema to see a production unfold on the big screen in black and white. The buzz of the place as people prepare themselves, settle into their seats and prepare to be transported for an hour or two is electric. Even more so in the Empire Cinema – the latest production in this venue greets you with a live fusion of the cinematic and the theatrical. It sweeps you up and whisks you away from the drudgery of life with childlike wonder. And that’s the gift of Emma Rice and Kneehigh,

‘It’s quite magical to be a part of – unlike any other show that I’ve ever done, this show really grabs you right at the start’ comments actor Isabel Pollen. Isabel plays the main protagonist, Laura Jesson, in this version of Brief Encounter – a play based on a film based on a play from the 1930s. The 1945 film, starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, has been voted as one of the top British films of all time by both the BFI and Time Out. ‘It’s a bit like a train itself, you jump on board and that’s it – bang, you’re gone. It captures that childlike quality of what’s going to happen next. It’s so visual, such a mixed bag.’

Isabel chats to me around the halfway point of this production, revived this year after its success in 2008 by the Kneehigh team. She effuses about Emma’s talents at recreating such a timeless romantic feeling within this venue, itself an ex-theatre before its conversion in 1929 – just as the talkies were truly taking off. Not only that, but Brief Encounter manages to capture the spirit of both media,

‘It’s a pretty intense relationship and a wonderful opportunity in a space like this,’ says Isabel. ‘The production manages to capture the intensity of that central story, but also the comedy and playfulness, which is Emma’s stamp. It’s so wonderful to have a piece that honours the film and also incorporates a lot of what Noel Coward set out to write.’

Brief Encounter Empire Cinema

Image courtesy of Steve Tanner

And Coward’s influence can be found all over this revival – he wrote the original play, Still Life, which eventually became the story we know and love today. Once you realise Brief Encounter is written by Coward, you can spot all of his playwriting intricacies that Rice and the team bring out in the show. The unrequited love; a forlorn set of journeys, each full of subtext; the light-hearted comedy and tender, miniature moments. This version is indeed nostalgic in its retelling,

‘Romance, if its truthful, is ageless and timeless,’ muses Isabel. ‘We can all relate to a love that could happen but for whatever reason doesn’t – those things are universal. The feeling of young love, which is what you see with Stanley [Jos Slovick] and Beryl [Beverly Rudd], or older love, which is what Albert [Dean Nolan] and Myrtle [Lucy Thackeray] have; those different and truthful stories are as relevant today as they would be in 20 years’ time.’

Brief Encounter Empire Cinema

Jos Slovick & Beverly Rudd (image courtesy of Steve Tanner)

And the spider’s webs of romance are what truly grip you throughout this production. Some of them have a happy ending, others not so – two married individuals falling in love with other is all too often seen as sordid adultery, to be shamed at or rebuked. Not so here. This Brief Encounter highlights the forlorn sadness that comes with upon realising the two soulmates will never be truly together,

‘It’s completely different to play a woman in that time,’ muses Isabel. ‘Laura nowadays would be on her mobile phone texting – the communication barrier ironically is greater. It was either you turn up or you don’t in those days, the stakes were much higher. The sounds [designed by Simon Baker] around that time are very rhythmic, as is the language. There’s a wonderful rhythm throughout the whole piece, which works brilliantly.’

Brief Encounter Empire Cinema

Lucy Thackeray, Isabel Pollen & Jim Sturgeon (image courtesy of Steve Tanner)

Language and rhythm are Emma’s forte here. As well as the sense of glee and wonderment that she so effortlessly conjures up, Emma has an innate sense of pacing for this show. When the lovers are together, time seems to slow down for a second; when life rips them apart, it happens in a headlong rush, blustering forth all too quickly to grab onto. With a live orchestration intricately woven into the piece by the performers themselves, the whole encounter, while brief, is emotionally gripping,

‘It’s still really exciting to have film and live music – the underscored production is delightful as an actor, because it doesn’t happen much,’ remarks Isabel. ‘There’s a lot to be said for allowing the audience to just be, to take in the story. There’s something incredibly exciting about live bodies in front of you – hearts beating, in the moment. Nothing beats that live performance.’



Brief Encounter plays at the Empire Cinema until 9 September 2018. For more information, please visit the website.