Things aren’t perfect for gay people in Britain today. But this gentle, funny, and touching riff on Noël Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter’ is a poignant reminder that they used to be really fucking awful – as little as fifty years ago. We’ve come a long way.
Station master Arthur and his new lung doctor, Lawrence – both upstanding married men living in the nineteen forties – strike up an unlikely friendship that develops into something deeper through a series of encounters on the railway platform. The blossoming romance is hindered, however, by the period’s sheer unthinkability of such a relationship between two men. They must keep their liaisons strictly secret at all cost, or face scandal and ruin.
Adam Lilley as Lawrence and Alexander Huetson as Arthur give brilliant, agonising portraits of men struggling with urges and desires that are contrary to the dictates of society. Huetson imbues Arthur with a rugged working-class twinkle that proves irresistible to Lawrence. The doting doctor is perfectly played by Lilley as clipped, reserved, and adorably English. Theirs is an affair of contrasts – Arthur’s attempts, and failure, to appreciate the classical music so adored by Lawrence, as well as his inability to comprehend the concept of a national health service, illustrate the class divide – but these differences are ultimately what fuels the fire of their passion – opposites attracting strongly. The moment in which they slowly undress each other for the first time – before being interrupted by the vicar – is enacted with a sweet, studied tenderness that captures the joy and anticipation of such a moment with piercing precision.
Christopher Hines has a duel role, giving us a brilliantly belligerent policeman, as well as the creepiest of creepy vicars ever to creep upon the stage. His gleeful announcement of a ‘cure’ for homosexuality is truly shuddersome. Penelope Day is hilarious as Mavis – Arthur’s friend and the proprietor of the station magazine kiosk – and also impresses as Sarah, Lawrence’s wife, who comes across sadly stoical, yet again waiting at home for her husband.
As we’ve come to expect from Above The Stag Theatre, the set by David Shields is superb – a total triumph of ambition and execution, complimented perfectly by cinematic lighting from Elliot Griggs. Once again we’re blown away by production values that are way above and beyond what one expects from fringe theatre. Magnificent.
While light-hearted in places, and with plenty of laugh-out-loud one-liners, the very real struggles faced by gay people at this time make a happy ending difficult. A modern-day framing device, featuring the discovery of a diary, highlights how much progress has been made, and allows the piece to end on an upbeat, happy note. This is a bittersweet story that impresses on us the importance of remembering our history, even as we move forward. The past really is a different country – and sometimes it seems like an alien planet.
GT gives this 5/5
Encounter runs at Above The Stag Theatre until November 15. For full details see abovethestag.com