Written by Noel Coward as part of a series of short plays, Still Life was designed to be performed within a collection spanning three evenings, before being picked up as the foundation for David Lean’s 1945 classic film, Brief Encounter. A claustrophobic exploration of forbidden passion set inside a train station cafe, the play gives us fragmented chapters of an adulterous couple’s romance. We watch as they meet by chance and, surrounded by freshly baked cakes and a steady supply of tea, return to enjoy stolen moments before catching the trains that will power them back towards betrayed families.
The location here is key, symbolically illustrating the distance between lovers Laura and Alec and their ultimate need to be separated. Audio clips of steam trains reinforce this sense of inevitability, as the couple try to negotiate with the sense of guilt that comes from returning to their respective spouses. By bringing this production to a venue tucked underneath a railway line, DeadAnt Theatre has made a undoubtable creative impact. Trains rolling overhead spontaneously contribute to the sound design, pulling at the boundaries between fiction and reality. This clever positioning endows the production with a playful, realistic edge, which makes the couple’s rushed departures from their ‘brief encounters’ thrillingly convincing. Indeed, as far as venues for this production go, you really can’t get any better.
It takes a little time to warm to the young adulterers, played by a restrained Alice Knapton and an enthusiastic James Powell. Initially, Laura’s respectability seems a little overdone and Alec’s guilty romanticism far too earnest. But, like any good affair, this one fights against our initial resistance and knots us tighter and tighter. We know we shouldn’t, but as soon as Powell detonates a perfect, reassuring smile, we fall for him. With brilliantly emphasised stares, nervous looks at the table and desperate rhetoric, Powell’s Alec is a man set on persuading himself as much as anything else. Knapton, in turn, goes on to deliver a wordless exploration of Laura’s quest to find belonging through love. Trying to match the intelligence of her lover with over-enthusiastic eyes and a smile pressed by anxious concentration, she attentively listens as he explains his work.
The strength of the piece lies in that there’s nothing remarkable about the two lovers, arguably making this one of Coward’s sharpest explorations of denied romance. Significantly, we are never shown the more liberated, guiltless moments of their encounter, making the relationship ultimately seem as hidden from us as it is from their respective spouses. In some productions, this selectivity leaves the sense that something is missing. However, Deadant Theatre has captured the snapshot intensity of these moments and, by balancing these guarded interactions against the hustle and bustle of lighthearted life in the cafe, has brought different episodes into the same scenes with clarity and realistic timing.
The power of this little production is derived from the fact that, as we watch the interactions contained within the station cafe, we’re not quite given enough details to truly believe in the ardent lovers. This is a production that forces us to speculate on what goes on outside and, with secretive love being its major theme, that is surely the point.
Still Life is playing at the Union Theatre until 25 August. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website.