Fulfilling the Brief – Michelle Nightingale on her role in Brief Encounter

Jim Sturgeon and Michelle Nightingale
Jim Sturgeon and Michelle Nightingale

When Adelaide’s own Michelle Nightingale auditioned for Kneehigh Theatre’s West End and Broadway hit Brief Encounter, she was expecting just that – a brief, but hopefully positive, audition experience. Instead, she got a contract to tour Australia with some of the best in the business…oh, and the lead role.

An adaptation of Noel Coward’s timeless work of romance and longing, Brief Encounter tells the story of Laura and Alec, two ordinary people who meet by chance on a train and fall in love. The complication? They are married; to other people.

Playing the lead role of Laura, Michelle Nightingale is thrilled to be working alongside performers from all over the world to tell this classic tale. She says, “Laura is a married woman who travels by train to the city every Thursday. One day, she happens to get coal dust in her eye and meets Alec, a doctor, who helps her. From there, sparks kinda fly! Within a very short period of time they realise they have fallen in love, even though they are both married to other people. They decide to sacrifice the love they have for each other in order to continue with the choices that they have already made.”

Nightingale admits to being surprised at landing the role of leading lady. “I’ve always seen myself as a singer. I’ve done bits and pieces of acting, but have no formal training. My agent really had to fight for the audition. I went in very much with the idea of, ‘I’m going to give it a shot and enjoy myself’, thinking that it would be an audition experience, not an audition that would come to fruition. As it turns out, I got the acting role and only sing three lines as a lullaby in the show. The whole thing is quite ironic and surreal.”

Nightingale gave an insight into the rehearsal process that took place over a very brief period of time in London. “We were told we needed to arrive in the UK knowing our lines. We had been sent a DVD of a past production to study to get some of the basic movements. The show is so technical; you have to land on specific spots at specific times because of the music, or sets flying in. We were in London for two weeks and worked on it for eight days before running it in front of a small audience.”

Though the blocking was already set for this huge and well-established production, Nightingale is thankful to have been given free reign when it came to developing character. “Kneehigh Theatre have been fantastic, saying ‘we don’t want you mimicking anyone else. You create the character for yourself.’” Nightingale also sang the praises of Emma Rice, the woman responsible for adapting and directing the piece. “I’ve never met anyone as easy going, fun and absolutely clear. Her approach is, ‘What can you bring, and how can we use that in this production?’”

Michelle Nightingale and Jim Sturgeon in Brief Encounter. Image supplied
Michelle Nightingale and Jim Sturgeon in Brief Encounter. Image supplied

The Brief Encounter cast is made up of eight performers – six actors and two musicians – some of which were part of the West End and Broadway productions of the show. For the Australian tour Nightingale has been cast alongside Scottish actor Jim Sturgeon. So, how’s their Laura and Alec chemistry? “We get on really well. It would be horrible to enter in and just crash with your romantic lead! We are so far from that; it makes it easy. Jim is a lovely man. I respect his art and what a great performer he is.”

Nightingale insists that Brief Encounter is much more than a play, saying, “It’s an all-round expression of theatre; it’s theatrical, musical and technically mind blowing. Audiences can expect a night of entertainment. We all sing, play instruments and dance. There’s even an element of film. There’s the theatrical side of it with the story, then the comedy; the other characters provide so much entertainment!”

Having done her research, does Nightingale think this stage adaptation is true to the original? “Absolutely. Emma Rice is part of the Noel Coward foundation in London. They fully endorse this production. It pays respect to the film, the original play, and to Noel Coward.”

Brief Encounter – National Tour Dates
Wed 9 – Sun 27 October, The Athenaeum, Melbourne

Fri 1 – Sun 10 November, The Concourse, Sydney

Wed 20 – Sat 23 November, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre

Thu 28 November – Sun 1 December, The Regal Perth

The original film, Brief Encounter will be screened on Saturday 19 October at Federation Square Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival program. For more info click here.

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