November 14th, 2015

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Encounter, Above the Stag - Review

My EQView feature this week was a review of Encounter‬ at Above The Stag Theatre, a new play which takes the world of the legendary 1945 film Brief Encounter and uses it as a setting for a gay love story.

Encounter is a refreshing new take on a much loved classic film, featuring strong writing, an excellent ensemble cast, and a set design that transports you back to the 1940s. An enjoyable and memorable night out at the theatre, enabling you to see Brief Encounter through new eyes. Highly recommended.

My EQView review of Encounter at Above the Stag Theatre is here:

‪Cut and pasted from the EQView website:


Encounter is a new play, written and directed by Phil Willmott, inspired by the legendary 1945 film Brief Encounter.

Noel Coward wrote Brief Encounter in the early 1940s and it depicts an affair between a man and a woman, who cannot be together and whose love will never be accepted, because they are both already married. Noel Coward was gay and many commentators have suggested Brief Encounter was his way of depicting a gay love story at a time when homosexuality was illegal, making it impossible to represent a gay romance on stage or screen.

This new play, Encounter, takes the world of Brief Encounter as a setting for a reimagining of the kind of gay romance Noel Coward and his contemporaries were forbidden to write.

Dr Lawrence Marsh (played by Adam Lilley) and Arthur Hollis (played by Alexander Huetson) first meet as Doctor and patient at the local hospital, where Arthur is being treated for respiratory problems. They exchange some friendly banter and their paths cross again at Vauxhall railway station – Arthur is the Station Master there and Lawrence is waiting for his train home. They feel a spark, and an attraction, and arrange to meet again the following week.

Encounter follows the story arc and the plotline of Brief Encounter very faithfully, and all the key scenes in the film are reflected in the play. The stolen Thursday afternoons, the cinema trips, the desire to take things further, finding a discreet venue but being unexpectedly interrupted, the ensuing shame, the decision to end the affair and move abroad, and an unwanted interruption denying the lovers their final farewell. As a fan of Brief Encounter I found all these echoes of the film very rewarding.

There is an added ingredient in Encounter and that is Class. Arthur was a miner during the war and is now a Station Master – solidly working class; whilst Lawrence is a well educated medical doctor – upper/middle class. But their relationship transcends the class divide. Arthur meets Lawrence, and begins to think about reading The Times rather than the Daily Mirror and, as their relationship develops, Lawrence introduces Arthur to classical music, educating him to heighten his appreciation of this art form.

In Brief Encounter the couple are from the same class, but in Encounter, there is this added transgression away from societal norms – Lawrence and Arthur are both married men, they are embarking on a same-sex relationship, and they are from different social classes. This serves to highlight how many societal norms their relationship is breaking and how transgressive their relationship is.

The developing relationship between Lawrence and Arthur genuinely pulled at your heartstrings because you sensed the attraction and the love they felt for one another, and yet you were aware of the utter hopelessness of their situation. Arthur had more invested in the relationship because any love he felt for his wife died when their daughter passed away. Trapped in a loveless marriage, there was a vacuum in his heart, crying out to be filled. By contrast, Lawrence appeared to have a happy and loving relationship with his wife. Lawrence has more to lose and, ultimately, sacrifices his love for Arthur for the sake of his reputation, his family and his career.

The supporting characters were strong and had depth. Mavis Madden, played by Penelope Day, the newsstand vendor, was lively and talkative, with a fine line in getting words slightly wrong and ruining the whole sense of the sentence. Day also played Sarah Marsh, Lawrence’s eminently sensible, loyal and trusting wife.

The Rev Richard Craven, played by Christopher Hines, was an intriguing character to add to the mix; outwardly upholding family values and yet harbouring dark secrets of his own. The addition of his character allowed the play to explore the effects and impact of leading a closeted life, and also to highlight the destructive nature and power of jealousy.

The sense of time and place was conveyed very strongly through the writing and the set design of the piece. The railway signs, the newspaper stand, the newspapers, the magazines, the film posters, and the adverts, gave you a strong sense of the period. As an audience member, you were transported back to post-war Britain, at a time when people were recovering from the immediate aftermath of war, rationing was still in place, and money was very tight. The way people behaved then was very different, as were societal norms and expectations.

Encounter relocated the action to Vauxhall railway station, which was a clever move, given Vauxhall is now the beating heart of the gay community in South London. The Above the Stag theatre was the perfect setting for this play. The theatre is within a stone’s throw of Vauxhall railway station, it is located directly underneath the railway arches, and you can hear and feel the trains rushing by overhead when you are seated in the theatre.

There is a very strong ensemble cast and all the actors played their parts to perfection. Special mention has to go to Alexander Huetson, playing Arthur Hollis, as he conveyed a real sense of vulnerability combined with an inner core of steel – Arthur was brave enough to open up his heart to the love that dare not speak its name, at a time when to pursue such a course of action was unthinkable.

The opening and closing scenes are set in the present day, in a Vauxhall coffee shop. The manager, himself a gay man, finds a discarded journal and reads, within its pages, about Dr Lawrence Marsh and Arthur Hollis’s love affair. He is struck by the difference between then and now. In the 1940s it was impossible for one man to openly love another, or to have any sort of same-sex relationship; whereas now gay men can have a civil partnership or get married. When his partner arrives to pick him up from work, they resolve to walk home holding hands, to acknowledge the progress made on same-sex relationships, and the freedoms they now have to love one another openly. This was an uplifting way to end the play, to highlight the gains won and the recent progress made on same-sex relationships.

Encounter is a refreshing new take on a much loved classic film, featuring strong writing, an excellent ensemble cast, and a set design that transports you back to the 1940s. An enjoyable and memorable night out at the theatre, enabling you to see Brief Encounter through new eyes. Highly recommended.

Encounter plays at Above The Stag Theatre (Vauxhall, London) until Sunday 15 November.

Above The Stag Theatre is the UK’s only full-time professional LGBT theatre.

Follow the link to the Above the Stag Theatre website: