As someone great* once said: “One of the best things about literature is the way that it enables you to travel to foreign lands without ever needing to leave your seat.” Jonathan Kent’s revival of Private Lives, Noël Coward’s infamous comedy of manners, certainly delivers as promised on this front. The play transports the audience from sweaty central London first to the French Riviera and then to Paris, with the glamour of the Gielgud theatre perfectly complementing the terribly chic 1920s setting.
The premise of Private Lives is wonderful in its simplicity: two pairs of newlyweds celebrate their first night of marriage in adjacent rooms at a French hotel. However, while his new wife freshens up, Elyot (Toby Stephens) discovers his ex-wife Amanda (Anna Chancellor) is on honeymoon next door. He also discovers he is still madly in love with her, and she with him and the pair elope together. The comedy which Coward’s deft hand scribes for us, based on this subtle premise, is truly magnificent.
While sadly at times Kent’s production falls short of the mark (for instance in the rather sledge-hammered comedy of the French maid scene), on the whole the strength of the two protagonists brings vivacity to what could have been a merely average production. Anna Chancellor is tremendous, her depiction of Amanda Prynne inspiring, and her grasp of her own physicality exhilarating to behold. While poor costume choice made her often appear dowdy she was able to overcome this, and play the ageing, yet sexually powerful, leading lady who so rarely appears these days.
The crux of the drama is the intense passion between the two leads, and Stephens and Chancellor more than deliver on this front; the whimsical opening scene at the hotel is justified in its shallowness by the scenes which follow the elopement. The central relationship, as it swings from highs to lows, from all-consuming passion to all-consuming hatred, is never clearly judged by the direction, which leaves the play’s ending refreshingly unpredictable.
Praise must also go to the supporting spouses: Anthony Calf’s Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman’s Sibyl were the comic pillars of the play. Sibyl’s name alone conjures something of her character (as Amanda herself comments), and Plowman delivers the role of naïve Violet Elizabeth Bott-esque cuckquean in the most fantastically jarring way. As an audience we cannot help but laugh when she frequently asserts that she has “never been more miserable”; her very unhappiness brings us raucous joy.
Overall this production is a strong one, though it feels as though it is missing a certain je ne sais quoi which might do more than transport us as onlookers to the Riviera or Paris and involve us emotionally in the plot. The support of the audience is never quite dedicated to the love of Victor and Amanda, which means that, despite frequent sophisticated developments, we never really do anything more than laugh. It is the public display to which we are treated, and we never quite get under the skin, deep down in their Private Lives.
*me. In my Oxford interview. The one where I was rejected by St John’s. You bastards.
Private Lives is showing in the West End from the 4th July-21st September. More information and ticket bookings are available at http://privateliveswestend.com/
PHOTOS/ Johan Persson