In 1945, one of Noël Coward’s great successes hit the big screen. Brief Encounter centred on the romance between a married man and a married woman, whose love is an impossible dream. Phil Willmot’s Encounter reimagines this story as a romance between Lawrence, a doctor who passes through Vauxhall Station each week, and Arthur, the station master. A chance encounter leads to a developing romance that is hindered by external pressures. However strong their connection, the barriers to their happiness in post war London seem insurmountable.
Both of the main characters are exquisitely developed and spring out from the stage through sparky, intelligent dialogue and magnificent performances from Adam Lilley as Lawrence and Alexander Huetson as Arthur. The supporting roles are somewhat more flat, with four additional characters played by two actors. These four just don’t have the depth of the central characters, and occasionally undermine the pathos of the whole, though they retain some comic value and drive the plot along.
One of the great achievements here is the way in which the tiny set transforms so readily to so many locations. That, and the sense of a filmic style that carries well in Above the Stag‘s tiny space under the overground.
Encounter, it is suggested, is the play Noël Coward wanted to write, but couldn’t: I think it presumptuous to suggest so. Coward never saw his private life, especially his sexuality, as a suitable topic for public conversation. But Willmot’s play, nonetheless, is a perfectly executed reimagining of Brief Encounter. It acknowledges the past and celebrates the present in a subtle but powerful way.
This is a deeply moving piece of theatre, with characters who quickly warm your heart and hold it enthralled until its chilling conclusion.