Deck the halls with boughs of holly, ’tis the month of melancholy.

At first glance, perhaps, the slow-motion romantic tragedy of Brief Encounter isn’t the most obviously joyful or triumphant of Christmas shows. But the weeks between December setting in and the year fading out have long been suffused with a parallel sadness, from The Snowman’s chronicle of a foreseeable death to It’s A Wonderful Life‘s depiction of narrowly averted suicide. Set alongside such kindred maudlin spirits, Brief Encounter’s resonant delineation of a passion proscribed by conventional morality’s scandalised censure fits like dark tinsel draped across the fairy lights.

The skeleton in the production’s cupboard, of course, is David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of what originated as a one act play by Noël Coward. Lean’s film, which has long since permeated the national psyche, very much foregrounded the clipped stoicism of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as Laura and Alec, each an exemplar of suburban bourgeois respectability, all repressed passion and received pronunciation.

Brief Encounter. Photo by Johan Persson.

For her Brief Encounter, Sarah Frankcom, Manchester Royal Exchange’s former artistic director, has gone back to Emma Rice’s 21st century stage version, whose divine inspiration was to interleave the songs of Coward alongside his drama. Frankcom realises Rice’s ambitious conceit with a snow-globe delicacy, each singular flake of its internal weather landing exactly as it should. So judicious is her attention to accumulated detail that even the unlikely presence of a station buffet jazz combo achieves a kind of naturalism.

Like the contained hemisphere of the aforementioned souvenir miniature landmark, the England fixed forever by Brief Encounter is a land of timetables and licensing laws, strictures and restrictions. As if to emphasise this, it plays out beneath a station clock, its scenes punctuated by the arrivals and departures of services running – miraculously from a modern perspective – to time.

Unequivocally at its heart is Hannah Azunaye’s Laura, her existence constrained by the narrowness of its gauge, monotonously following the predictable tracks of her domesticity. That is, until, in removing the grit from her eye, Baker Mukasa’s Alec offers her a glimpse of what it might be like to go, after a genteel fashion, off the rails. Whereas, in Lean’s film, the staff populating both platform and buffet inhabit the uncertain territory between caricature and grotesquery, in Frankcom’s Milford Junction, the working class are afforded not only the nuance of their economic betters but the prospect of happier termini.

Brief Encounter. Photo by Johan Persson.

Most importantly, perhaps, the production never jars when it enters its intermittent musical way-stations, so that the musical numbers arise rather from the states the characters find themselves in than any authorial design to shoe-horn in songs more familiar to a modern audience. Frequently, moreover, their function is to allow the characters to cast away their masks, giving them the courage of their convictions. From the moonstruck mouth of Georgia Frost as Stanley, Any Little Fish angles for the affections of Ida Regan as Beryl, who gleefully takes the lure. Equally effective, in terms of Laura and Alec’s romance, is the almost Edenic set piece which opens act two to the strains of Sail Away, the near-lovers blossom-strewn and beguiled.

Indeed, it’s an ensemble cast in the best senses of that phrase, with each member clearly delineating a number of distinct personalities, so that Robert Glaves, for example, impresses not only as a passive and stoic husband to Laura but as a station master in the lineage of Ronnie Barker’s Arkwright from Open All Hours and an urbane hypocrite, with a Wildean worldliness.

Oddly, perhaps the only false note was the ensemble song and dance number which softens the blows of Laura’s climactic compromise while allowing the audience to walk out to winter fortified by something at a more comfortable remove from despair. Perhaps, even at Christmas, the melancholy must be leavened by something more decorous. Very much a first-rate Noël.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image Johan Persson

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Brief Encounter is at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until January 13, 2024. For more information, click here.