Tweetingit: 4* Noel Coward’s comedy of manners still seems fresh as a sparkling production mixes a sharp script with some wonderfully manic slapstick sequences.
When Private Lives premiered in 1930 Noel Coward was approaching the peak of his powers as a playwright.
It landed in the middle of a prolific spell that saw 26 of his plays performed in a twenty year period following the Great War. Book-ended by The Vortex and Blithe Spirit it stands out as an enduring example of his finest work. Billed as a comedy of manners it relies on a series of coincidences that stretch credibility to breaking point. But Coward’s rhythmic prose makes the plot work with the assistance of a poised and skilful cast.
Elyot Chase (Toby Stephens) has just married Sibyl (Anna Louise Plowman) and taking their honeymoon in Deuville. Unbeknown to them Elyot’s ex-wife Amanda (Anna Chancellor) has also remarried to Victor Prynne (Anthony Calf). They are also on honeymoon and staying at the same hotel in Deuville. Their marriage ended five years previously but still carry emotional scars into a new relationship. Inevitably chaos ensues as Elyot and Amanda discover they still have feelings for each other.
Not only should we suspend our disbelief but dismiss it without notice. What are the chances of a couple divorced for five years remarrying at the same time, then going on honeymoon to the same resort at the same hotel, where they have adjoining apartments? Moreover, it also assumes that Elyot and Amanda no longer share common friends who might just have tipped them off. It’s something that nags me every time I watch this otherwise excellent play. If you can ignore the probability of such events, then it’s a hugely entertaining ninety minutes. A sterling cast have great fun sparking off each other as a pot-boiling script delivers some delicious one-liners. The play can boast a mighty pedigree with the likes of Richard Burton, Alan Rickman, Elizabeth Taylor and Maggie Smith appearing in previous productions. For a piece that’s exactly 90 years old it still flourishes and has something relevant to say about life.
Author: Noel Coward
Director: Jonathan Kent
Producers: CFT Enterprises, Old Vic Productions, Duncan C. Weldon & Apt Productions/Chichester Theatre Productions