With Valentine’s Day fast approaching it’s time to concentrate on all things “romantic” for the next few reviews. Not that I’m necessarily going to go for the obvious – I’ve already covered off Romeo and Juliet and I don’t think there’s a stage version of Titanic which I can go for (although please feel free to prove me wrong). So, let’s start with a romantic comedy which might also be seen as an anti-romantic comedy. Noel Coward’s Private Lives picks up on the tradition of the warring couple who simply can’t get enough of each other – cf Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Congreve’s The Way Of the World or any number of Hollywood films such as When Harry Met Sally.
Elyot and Amanda used to be married and then weren’t and now are again – but not to each other. They are both honeymooning with their new spouses in adjoining hotel rooms in Deauville and, if you can get past that massive coincidence which Coward doesn’t even try and explain away, you’re in for a war of words and, at some points, fists. The couple are both infatuated with and repelled by their soul mate yet ultimately combine against the world as represented by ninnyish Sybil and stuffy Victor, their new other halves. Like naughty schoolchildren Amanda and Elyot run away to Paris and hole up in the former’s apartment where the mood swings between infatuation and fisticuffs until Victor and Sibyl track them down and confront them. Their reaction is to run away – again. The actual plot of Private Lives is certainly gossamer thin – indeed in the whole half hour of Act 2 barely anything happens. Coward himself wrote: The critics described “Private Lives” variously as ‘tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring’. All of which connoted in the public mind cocktails, repartee and irreverent allusions to copulation, thereby causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office. The Master certainly knew what he was commercially about. But I think this rather knowingly disingenuous dismissal misses the point that the whole thing is a razor sharp dissection of a relationship.
Jonathan Kent’s 2013 production (which originated in Chichester a year earlier) is a mostly reverential reading of the play which relies heavily on the charisma and onstage chemistry between the two leads Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens. The latter, pleasingly, is the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, perhaps the most accomplished pairing in these roles in living memory and there are definitely occasional glimpses of his parents (particularly his mother) in Stephen’s interpretation of the role as a rather childish man who can’t quite decide what he wants. Chancellor meanwhile imbues Amanda with a tigress’s ferocity when roused – which is frequently. The characterisations occasionally tip over into camp excess, but would we want it any other way? The rather less rewarding roles of the jilted spouses are played by Anthony Calf as a stuffed shirt who unconsciously goes around tidying and folding when agitated and Anna-Louise Plowman who seems to be a bit of a drip but turns out to be a budding Amanda. They are as clearly unsuited for each other as they would be with the people they have hastily married. Sue Kelvin’s French maid Louise is as obviously underwritten as these parts usually are, but she does what she can with what there is.
Anthony Ward’s fabulous design is everything you would wish it to be with the apartment evoking the Parisian chic of the interwar years against which the characters swan around in silk pyjamas and the obligatory Coward dressing gown. The furnishings and props ooze decadence though the props makers must have been kept busy every night resupplying the pottery which gets hurled around. The music is equally evocative whether that be Coward’s own “Some Day I’ll Find You” or Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring” which has Amanda performing a savage routine to try and disconcert the usually unflappable Elyot.
If you want a straightforward account of a twentieth classic comedy of manners with more than a soupçon of star appeal, you’re not going to go too far wrong with this production which was clearly honed with the original Chichester audience in mind. It might also provide somewhat of an antidote to the more mawkish excesses perpetrated at this time of year in the name of Cupid and his cohorts. And if it whets your appetite for more Coward it’s worth remembering that A Marvellous Party – a celebration of his work – is still available.
Private Lives is available on streaming platforms Digital Theatre – click here – and Broadway HD – click here
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