Pros: Highly creative design work – particularly the lighting – creating a wonderful sense of mood and atmosphere.
Cons: A fundamentally flawed piece of writing that crudely deals with some sensitive issues.
This was my maiden voyage to ‘Above the Stag’; the UK’s only full-time professional LGBT theatre. I was going to see Encounter, a new play inspired by Noel Coward’s 1940’s Brief Encounter. The play attempts to reimagine Coward’s original story, creating the kind of gay romance, ‘Coward and his contemporaries were forbidden to write.’
Audiences to this small studio are met by an impressive looking set which is well designed. It’s literal, multifunctional, and nicely places the various locations. This is effectively complimented by a well thought out and suitably-themed film noir lighting design – one of the stronger aspects of the production, in my opinion. The expressionist lighting creates the sort of atmosphere and drama befitting of director David Lean, who directed the 1945 film version of Brief Encounter.
The story is what you would expect: an encounter takes place, between two men, that ultimately throws them and their lives into turmoil. Mirroring the film, this production is set in 1945 and pushes the two men to consider how much they must sacrifice in order to be together. It claims to be ‘evocative’ and ‘heart-breaking’ asking audiences to: ‘consider how far we’ve come and how much we’ve still in common with our grandfather’s generation.’ Unfortunately though, for me, the production falls short of being evocative or heart-breaking and fails to achieve what it set out to do.
In my opinion, the script and direction were somewhat flawed. The production was let down by what I felt was clunky and jagged jumping between styles. It lacked identity and included what came across to me as inappropriate and rather outdated gay gags, which felt more suited to the theatre’s annual gay pantomime, than a heart-breaking exploration of forbidden love.
There was some promising acting, but this too often fell victim to the production’s eclectic use of style. I felt it was frequently demonstrative and lacked believability. I wasn’t at all convinced that I was following the story of two men who had fallen in love, at a time when homosexuality was outlawed. I was particularly frustrated by the regular appearance of a ‘closeted’ gay priest who brought with him regular bouts of cheap – and toe curling – innuendo and ‘wink-wink’. This resulted in my inability to invest in what I was seeing. My other gripe was the way in which the horrific use of aversion therapy, a popular treatment at the time used to ‘cure’ homosexuality, was flippantly referred to towards the end, and left hanging.
From its own publicity, I expected that Encounter would address forbidden love, the fear and pain it brings with it, in a meaningful and sensitive way – particularly considering this is an LGBT theatre – but I was disappointed. My companion and I – both gay men – left feeling let down and cheated.
Written and Directed by: Phil Willmott
Designer: David Shields
Lighting Designer: Elliot Griggs
Stage Manager: Hannah Roza Fisher
Produced by: Peter Bull for Above the Stag Theatre
Booking until: 15 November 2015
Booking Link: http://www.abovethestag.com/shows/