By mere coincidence I had recently watched the 1945 David Lean film adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1936 play Still Life. Coward himself had adapted the drama into that screenplay and between them they had created one of the most iconic films of the 20th century. It’s good, very good indeed with some truly marvellous performances from Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

Many years later Emma Rice with her company Knee High created a stage version that captured much of the sense of period and instilled in it a huge amount of humour. It was clever stuff, thoroughly entertaining for certain but in doing it in this way it lacked the shocking elements of illicit love and the sadness of love that ends in heartbreak.

This week at Brighton Open Air Theatre Cue Fanfare company have managed to create a far more true to the original staging, whist using the Emma Rice script, but putting back the, for its time, shocking story of infidelity without making a mockery of it.

There is in this reworking plenty of humour of course, but it has not been allowed to swamp the central themes. Adding songs by Coward lends a sense of time and place, and the simple piano accompaniment is elegant and effective, as too are the costumes which are uniformly created in soft sepia tones with the occasional flash of daring red, and the styling of the costumes by Jane Shakespeare is beautifully handled.

Director Patric Kearns has crafted a moving and elegant production that cleverly makes use of the whole shape of the venue, the cast remaining on stage at all times and walking in and out to define locations and time, and the settings are created using simple chairs and tables, a few sets of step ladders, a simple bar and a hat stand on which the various clothes that enable members of the cast to adopt their different roles. It simple in one sense but extremely clever.

And finally onto the cast. At the centre of the story we have Anna Brecon playing Laura Jesson, she does this so wonderfully, the clipped tones, the sense of reserve and restraint from the very start, every moment steeped in middle class manners. It works so beautifully as she gradually succumbs to her illicit affair with Dr Harvey who she meets by accident in the buffet of a railway station. It’s a marvellous interpretation that has all that Celia Johnson gave to the role without ever being an impersonation.

Alec Harvey is played by Jamie Kenna, a Brighton based actor who, of late has found international fame in Peaky Blinders and House Of The Dragon as well as many many stage and TV roles. How good it is that an actor at this point in his career will find time to take on a local production like this. And how great he is in the part. Dr Harvey is a solid gentleman, described by all the ladies as handsome, but quite modest and perhaps a little shy. He gently navigates the path of the romance, never pushes, occasionally suggesting that it is not only he, but Laura too is falling in love. And of course this is set at a time when infidelity was very much frowned upon. Their secret trysts in the cinema and in cafes are fairly innocent liaisons at the start only building towards something more intimate. It’s a delightful and delicately played affair played by Kenna and Brecon.

Humour comes from Claire Marlowe whose Myrtle Bagot is a delicious display of shrill pomposity, physicality and manipulation and her buns are a delight. At her side Carly Day is the love lost Beryl, the gangling buffet assistant, secretly wooed. Callum Stephenson takes on the roles of Stanley and Bill and delivers the songs excellently, as do all the members of the cast when called upon. Peter Lovstrom is marvellous as the seeming dull husband Fred Jesson, armchair bound, crossword obsessed and disinterested in what his wife is trying to tell him. He does get one of the best speeches at the end of the play, one of the most moving moments when he reveals that he has perhaps been fully aware all along. Josh Tomley plays various incidental roles but has a very funny and very silly moment when the boat train rattles through the station.

What we have here is, in modern parlance, a mash up of the classic movie and Emma Rice’s clever script, and it works. I have enjoyed both elements before but this satisfies both that modern interpretation and Coward’s, at the time rather racy, film version.

On the first night strong winds sadly swallowed some of the dialogue, a regular issue at BOAT, but do not be put off by the weather and get along to see yet another great production from this excellent local company.

Andrew Kay

3 July

Brighton Open Air Theatre


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