The “Brief Encounter” that’s at the Lansburgh Theatre for the next two weeks is hardly a campy parody of the beloved 1945 romantic film, thank heavens. It’s a gorgeous, unexpected fever dream and a brilliant exercise in style — a smart and loving variation of the movie with sumptuous cinematic images all its own, with fetchingly jazzy music to boot.
You can’t believe how full of surprises it is. The show, which has toured the world since emerging in 2008 at Cornwall’s highly regarded Kneehigh company, acts a little slapdash from the moment you enter the lobby. There, actors in 1938 railway staff outfits sing vintage songs and play instruments that include a ukulele and spoons.
Too cute, right? Sure, but wait till everyone gets on stage, where director and adaptor Emma Rice reveals one bright idea after another, all springing from something that feels more like reverence for the old British weepie than you ever would have bargained for.
Moon-eyed tunes like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Mad About the Boy”? Vaudeville shtick that includes sight gags with dog puppets? Why not? Yet the performance sobers up magnetically, even majestically, whenever it gets back to those famously doomed lovebirds, Laura and Alec.
If you’ve never seen the movie “Brief Encounter,” it’s worth the 85 minutes. (This stage version, part of the STC Presentation series, isn’t much longer than that.) Drawn from a Noel Coward one-act called “Still Life,” the film — written and produced by Coward — starts in an English railway station, where a speck of dust gets in the eye of a cheerful woman named Laura. Luckily, a handsome doctor is there to remove it. Unluckily, they’re both married to other people.
The passion that blooms between Trevor Howard’s elegant Alec (the handy doctor) and Celia Johnson’s gobsmacked Laura in that huffing, puffing station — filmed in evocative black and white by David Lean — is famously underscored by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. That’s used ingeniously on stage, too, though most of the eight-member cast more typically plays swinging or introspective melodies on guitar, banjo, piano and upright bass. This allows for an occasional bit of vaudeville strutting, but more often it sets a winsome romantic tone. (“Mad About the Boy” and other numbers come from Coward.)
The set looks simple: a rail station tea shop where the lid of an upright piano doubles as a countertop. But complicated things happen on a catwalk over the stage, and Rice makes fabulous use of projections and film by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll. Their own black-and-white footage — billowing with train steam, shimmery in an underwater fantasy — sweeps us inside the unsettled heart of the piece.
It’s possible to overstate the role played by the projections; for the most part, this is a live stage performance. Yet whenever Rice calls for it, the live action and film are ingeniously blended, right through the famous emotional climax dangerously close to the train tracks. Technically, this is the best sort of tour de force — diabolically complex, yet human-scaled. There’s nothing “mega” or bombastic about it.
Hannah Yelland, Tony-nominated after this show alighted on Broadway in 2010, handles Laura’s fervent “I love you’s” with alluring decency, and Jim Sturgeon is understated and gallant as Alec. Their cool seriousness gives the show a formidable center of gravity, even as Rice puts a striking new frame around this familiar romantic portrait.
Spiffy comic turns are provided by Damon Daunno, Annette McLaughlin and Dorothy Atkinson as recognizable faces whose passions and interests range further here than we ever see in the movie. But it’s not the acting, exactly, that leaves you as enraptured by this “Brief Encounter” as Alec and Laura are by each other. And it’s not the ravishing cinematic effects, or the comic relief, or the supple, moody music. It’s the whole enterprise. It’s a dashing, bubbly astonishment.
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice from Noel Coward’s play “Still Life” and his screenplay “Brief Encounter.” Original music, Stu Barker. Designer, Neil Murray; lighting designer, Malcolm Rippeth; sound design, Simon Baker; musical director, Ian Ross. With Joe Alessi, Dave Brown and James Gow. About one hour 40 minutes. Through April 13 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Tickets $30-$75. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.