Theater reviews

Broadway's fine British imports: 'Brief Encounter,' 'Pitmen Painters'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010

NEW YORK -- The provinces get a bad rap. Consider the creative impact they are having at the moment on Broadway, where shows originating from such far-flung British locales as Cornwall and Newcastle are giving the theater season an early, invigorating boost.

The vigorous work from Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre and Newcastle's Live Theatre should be encouraging news for troupes in regional American cities that want to develop plays with potentially broader appeal. From Cornwall has come a captivating stage adaptation of David Lean's 1945 film "Brief Encounter," which opened at Roundabout Theatre's Studio 54 on Tuesday night. And from Newcastle arrives "The Pitmen Painters," an absorbing if a bit more prosaic new play about easel-bound coal miners that opened Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

What accounts for these temblors of inspiration, away from the epicenters of culture? Singularly original projects and artists can of course evolve in almost any climate -- the subject, in fact, of "The Pitmen Painters" -- but something special is afoot in places like Cornwall and American cities such as Chicago, where dramatists and directors are figuring out with increasing frequency how to make theater in their own back yards that speaks to large groups of playgoers elsewhere. New York and London are still the arbiters of which theatrical works convey to the realm of popular art. But as these plays demonstrate, more and more other localities are, imaginatively speaking, closing the gap.

On the evidence of "Brief Encounter," its adapter and director, Emma Rice, is one of those outliers to be reckoned with. Her fluidly staged treatment is both a saucy riff on and an endearing homage to Noel Coward's tale, first dramatized as the play "Still Life," about the affair between a pair of suburbanites, an earnest doctor and a hesitant homemaker, affectingly portrayed here by Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland. It's a production that lets you smile knowingly at the old-style movie conventions, and without ever turning its characters into jokes.

Rice uses a variety of charming strategies to ward off the stuffier conceits of the period love story, much of it set just before World War II in the railway station where the furtive lovers meet. Actors and musicians perform Coward songs such as "Mad About the Boy" and "Always," the latter written with Stu Barker; a band plays some numbers before the show, and others are woven into the plot. Onto Neil Murray's industrial set, meanwhile, a screen is occasionally lowered, so that flesh-and-blood actors can interact with their celluloid interlocutors, a technique used to similar effect in Woody Allen's sly movie comedy "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

The beauty in the way Rice employs these devices is that they embroider rather than upstage the tender story at the evening's core. It's apt that Sturrock's Alec and Yelland's Laura find love at a transit hub, for "Brief Encounter" is all about escape from the expectations and responsibilities of long-term emotional commitments. (The tick-tock of a clock in the home of Laura and her indifferent husband, well played by Joseph Alessi, taps out the oppressive rhythm of their lives.)

Yelland and Sturrock make a handsome match, and Annette McLaughlin generates a delightful series of sparks as Myrtle, the live wire who runs the railway tea shop. At regular intervals they and the rest of the ensemble go into gentle swoons, choreographed to projections of ocean waves, or the sound of the wind. We roll along with them, enchanted.

"The Pitmen Painters," presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is about working men and art, though it's not quite as artful a portrait as "Brief Encounter." It's the sort of accessible play that's meant for a rainy afternoon, when you might be happy to be out of the weather and up for a little edification. Playwright Lee Hall's upbeat treatment recounts the real-life story of a group of miners who, courtesy of their union, enroll in an art course and become celebrated for the paintings they produce of a workingman's life.

How they come to express themselves on canvas at the urging of a local art professor (Ian Kelly) is a livelier dramatic springboard than what happens after their work is discovered by the press and some wealthy patrons. So the first half of this enjoyably acted piece, directed by Max Roberts, is the better one. Still, there is enough intriguing biography here to justify the production's having landed on these shores from its starting point in England's North.

Brief Encounter

By Noel Coward. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice. Sets and costumes, Neil Murray; projections, Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington. With Gabriel Ebert, Dorothy Atkinson. About 90 minutes. At Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York. Visit or call 212-719-1300.

The Pitmen Painters

By Lee Hall. Directed by Max Roberts. Sets and costumes, Gary McCann; lighting, Douglas Kuhrt. With Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, David Whitaker, Phillippa Wilson, Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 13 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. Visit or call 212-239-6200.

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