Brief Encounter

Wireless Mystery Theatre's most ambitious production to date is the perfect Valentine's Day treat

‘Nothing lasts, neither happiness nor despair.’ These are the thoughts of Laura Jesson, a middle-class suburban housewife in the late 1930s looking back on her brief, but emotionally devastating, ‘affair’ with dashing doctor Alec Harvey in director David Lean’s classic movie Brief Encounter.

Written by Noel Coward, and adapted from his one-act play Still Life, the film – regarded as one of the most romantic movies ever made – has been returned to its theatrical roots in the Grand Opera House in time for Valentine's Day by Belfast-based Wireless Mystery Theatre.

Renowned as Northern Ireland’s only audio theatre company, WMT have produced their most ambitious project to date. Using state of the art 3D audio holograms, the doomed romance of Laura and Alec is brought to vivid life on the Baby Grand stage.

The play begins in the refreshment room at Milford railway station, a provincial town in southern England. Two passengers, Laura Jesson (Mary Lindsay) and Doctor Alec Harvey (Stephen Beggs), sit silently at a table, their faces betraying a mixture of anxiety and misery.

They are joined by Dolly Messiter (Sonia Abercrombie), a talkative friend of Laura’s, who rabbits away to them unaware of the pair’s inner turmoil. We learn that Alec is moving to South Africa with his wife and children to open a practice and this is the last time he and Laura will meet.

Alec’s train is announced and he says goodbye to Laura, laying a hand on her shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze before leaving. Laura sits on for a while, barely listening to Dolly’s inane chatter, before she rushes off complaining of feeling unwell. Back home Laura says hello to her children before settling down with her husband Fred, ‘a kindly and unemotional man', to help him with the Times crossword.

Laura imagines she is confessing her affair to Fred and we slowly discover the story of her forbidden romance, from the first moment she and Alec meet to a poignant retelling of the opening scene revealed with fresh perspective by use of pre-recorded voice over and flashback scenes.

After enjoying each other’s company, the two arrange to meet again the following Thursday. What begins as an innocent and casual friendship quickly develops into love, a love Laura cannot fully embrace. Her horror at the thought of betraying her husband, coupled with her moral values, prevents her from giving in fully to the most honest, yet turbulent, emotions she has ever experienced. ‘I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people,’ she confesses.

Mary Lindsay is wonderful in the role of Laura. Her RP accent betrays little emotion yet her face reveals the hidden passions she is battling to control. In a scene when the couple first meet for tea, Alec talks about his life as a doctor and his passion for preventative medicine. As Laura listens, we see the first unspoken stirrings of love bloom in her eyes. It is a wonderful moment.

Stephen Beggs as Alec is every inch the English gentleman, twinkle-eyed and enthralled by the beautiful Laura. And a sub-plot concerning the station master Godby (Nicholas Boyle) and the refreshment room tea lady Myrtle Baggot (Rachael McCabe) brings a little light relief to proceedings, their casual, humorous flirtations acting as a counterbalance to the main story.

Despite a few opening night technical hitches the audio soundscape is wonderfully evocative. The sound of steam trains rumble through the theatre, and the live score – played on piano and flute – underlines the poignancy of the lovers’ plight.

At one point in the story, the couple go to a room belonging to a friend of Alec's, and fellow doctor. Interrupted by the friend’s return – just when it seems they may consummate their love – Laura is forced to leave. As she walks home in the rain, she daydreams about the places she and Alec could visit and the freedom and joy their love could bring if she was another person in another time, if neither were married and they could pursue their truest feelings.

A disco ball above the stage reflects light as music swells beneath Laura’s words. It is a beautiful scene, heartbreaking in its simplicity. ‘And then I walked home, quite soberly and without wings,’ Laura admits.

Brief Encounter is a story about decency, honour and responsibility. It’s also a love story. The times may have changed since Laura and Alec acted out their failed romance in a refreshment room at Milford Station, but love is eternal. Whether your love story has a happy ending or not, this deeply moving production is a good way to be reminded of that.

Brief Encounter runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until February 15.