Brief Encounter - London

Noël Coward’s haunting love story returns to London.

Brief Encounter London Star Isabel Pollen on Romance, Railway Stations & Rachmaninoff

Brief Encounter London Star Isabel Pollen on Romance, Railway Stations & Rachmaninoff
Jim Sturgeon & Isabel Pollen in "Brief Encounter
(Photo: Steve Tanner)

Emma Rice’s ravishing stage version of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter is headed back to London, after international exposure that included an acclaimed Broadway run in 2010. The cast this time around is headed by Isabel Pollen and Jim Sturgeon, inheriting the roles immortalized in the 1945 David Lean film by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Performances start March 2 at the Empire Cinema Haymarket, so what better time to talk to its leading lady about the vagaries of love, whether at railway stations or elsewhere.

How familiar were you in advance with this production, which has been the signature show to date of its director-adaptor Emma Rice and her Cornwall-based Kneehigh company?
I hadn’t seen this particular play before, which may not have been such a bad thing since it meant I could come at it as a bit of a blank. Having said that, Emma is quite an inclusive director, so it does feel as if everyone has left a bit of their DNA on the piece.

Didn’t you know Emma, even if you hadn’t seen this production?
Yes, I had met her through an audition when I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she remembered me! She really does clock actors in way that directors generally don’t. I first got to know her helping to develop a stage production of Rebecca, but I was busy having a baby at the time, who is now almost two, so I was thrilled when this came along and I could work with her again.

 What is it about this title that endures, whether as Noel Coward’s original play Still Life or as his celebrated screenplay for the 1945 David Lean movie? 
I think it’s that you get to see three different love stories. The central one between my character, Laura, and Jim [co-star Jim Sturgeon] as Alec is the love story that cannot happen, so we get to experience what it could have been and then that gets taken away. 

But the film and the play don’t stop there, do they?
What’s fantastic is that you also get the glorious stories of Myrtle and Albert at the station, which is a mature love and a wonderful love to be celebrated, and then you’ve got a third story, which is of young love and wonderfully clumsy and new and embarrassing and exciting. 

How does the production deal with all this?
Very knowingly! You get these three insights into love and then Emma adds to them the Kneehigh style of theater, where all senses are exploded: you’ve got music, you’ve got dance, and you’ve got the playfulness of theater. There’s this rollercoaster of tears and laughter and fun and tragedy and everything you want, really—and it all happens in 90 minutes, which is not a bad thing.

What’s your take on Laura herself?
I think of her as a very good woman with a strong moral compass which is then held up at her: she meets somebody with immense magnetic charm and decides she’s going to go off track a little bit and then she decides, “No, actually.” But she does enjoy the slight risk of it for a little bit. 

How has it been working with Jim [Sturgeon], on a play where chemistry is crucial?
I knew of Jim and he knew of me, but we’d never met. As soon as I auditioned with him, I thought, “Oh yes, I can see why this chap has been chosen.” It’s just one of those partnerships that really works. He’s fun, he’s direct, he’s professional: he’s all the things you want in Alec, and we have a lot of fun together, which is hugely important to me.

Was it important to you to watch the time-honored film of Brief Encounter, with the venerable Celia Johnson as Laura? 
I wanted to see the film as soon I knew about the part! That was to do with honoring the piece, but I think it’s also part of the homework: you do as much preparation as you can, but not so much so that you are blindly following suit. Funnily enough, where I live in London [Richmond, towards the west of the capital] is where Celia Johnson lived as well, so I definitely have been walking with her spirit.

Have you taken a renewed interest in railway stations since joining this production—given how crucial they are to the unfolding relationship between Laura and Alec?
There’s a little bit of that going on for me, yes. What’s amazing about train stations is that they are great people-watching places, just like airports or any place of transition. I’ve really enjoyed watching couples, particularly, getting on or off trains: that fundamental action is the same in 2018 as it was in 1945.

What do you think of the abundance of music in the show, which ranges from Noel Coward standards to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2?
I listened to Noel Coward all during my [drama school] training, and it’s such a joy to have the richness of his wit. And it’s almost like Rachmaninoff saw the David Lean film and wrote the music for it—even though he didn’t. 

Will it be difficult juggling a long London run of this show with the demands that go with having a young daughter at home?
I’ll get two evenings at home with Jemima and I’ve got a very supportive partner, which is wonderful, so that’s all looked after. And I think not so surprisingly that we’ve got a little performer on our hands. She seems to love everything about the piece, including the music, as well.

Has Jemima given you any notes?
[Laughs] Not so far but all that is definitely in her blood!