Score Plan: A homespun take on familiar music helps make Brief Encounter memorable.
Score Plan: A homespun take on familiar music helps make Brief Encounter memorable.

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What do you do if you’re a director, adapting a film into a play, and the film’s soundtrack prominently features the most romantic, over-the-top piano concerto of all time?

If you are Emma Rice, artistic director of the U.K.’s Kneehigh Theatre, you keep Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” but add a banjo, a mouth organ, and a ukulele.

Musical whimsy and a stubborn refusal to take a sad story too seriously are the secrets to Kneehigh’s beautifully imagined production of Brief Encounter, which is now touring the U.S. and is currently in residence at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh. The troupe’s first stateside trip ended with a 2011 New York run, and in the interim Broadway has been overrun by musical movie adaptations, from Rocky to The Bridges of Madison County.

This, friends of stage and screen, is how adaptations should be done: with reverence for a respected movie, but a healthy realization that mere replication isn’t going to cut it, especially when you’re dealing with melodrama that’s been roundly mocked by Monty Python. Brief Encounter, David Lean’s landmark 1945 film, is actually based on Noel Coward’s brief 1938 play Still Life. Both are about a doctor and a housewife, each married to other people, who cross paths at a train station and fall so hard it’s as if love came at them like a runaway locomotive. “Their dutiful lives have been interrupted by a tempest of feeling,” wrote the film historian David Thomson. “[It’s] a most unfortunate encounter. Or is it the light of their drab lives?”

Kneehigh’s production uses black-and-white projections of the leads (Hannah Yelland and Jim Sturgeon) to cleverly depict a couple stepping in and out of each other’s weekly routines, and bringing great color to the stage when they do. Most impressively, one of the actors will part a white curtain hosting the projected footage, and “reappear” in the film, as when Sturgeon hops aboard a passing train. Yelland, a British actress now based in D.C., and Sturgeon face a challenge, in that they must play enigmatic characters with colorless lives. They are helped, immensely, by some of the finest character actors we may see on Washington stages all year. Dorothy Atkinson, who plays a quiet, mysterious medical orderly on the BBC drama Call the Midwife, shows off her physical-comic chops as a server at the Mitford station’s refreshment stand who runs off to neck with a strolling, singing candy boy (a honey-tongued Damon Daunno). Annette McLaughlin plays the proprietress for whom “settling my accounts” is a euphemism for banging the station manager (Joe Alessi) in a supply room.

More than the film, this staged Brief Encounter emphasizes a class divide that prevents the lead pair of lovers from ever making love. The “tempest of feeling” they long to act on is instead conveyed through music and movement. Twice between scenes, the ensemble sings the main theme of the Rach 2’s first movement as a threatening vocalise. Two musicians are onstage throughout the show, and several actors strum the ukulele, play the piano, and pluck an upright bass. Even Yelland bangs out a chord of the concerto before the curtain falls.

She and Sturgeon never appear more in love than when they waltz, row a boat, or swing from chandeliers attached to bungee cords that drop down from the ceiling. These are not actions their characters literally do, but what they might dream they do, in this alternate universe where love can’t conquer all, but a piano concerto can.