Monday, 8 July 2013

Theatre review: Private Lives

It's really not that long since Noël Coward's Private Lives was last in the West End - just three years in fact since Kim Cattrall headlined a production. So Chichester Festival Theatre must have felt pretty confident in Jonathan Kent's production to risk a new transfer - indeed had it not been for the £10 Time Out ticket offer, which got us perfectly good seats in the back of the Stalls, I'm not sure I would have bothered with this. But it's worth the tenner and a couple of hours of my time as it turns out to be quite a different beast to the last time I saw the play. Elyot (Toby Stephens) and Amanda (Anna Chancellor) were married for two years, divorced for five, and have both now married new partners. On the same day, in fact, as their honeymoons bring them to adjoining balconies of a French hotel, where moments after reassuring their new spouses that their exes are ancient history, their accidental meeting reignites the spark. (Literally - it's Noël Coward so there's a lot of languid smoking.)

The two quickly ditch the dippy Sibyl (Anna-Louise Plowman) and sensible Victor (Anthony Calf) and run off to Amanda's Paris flat to hide out for a few days, but once they've rediscovered what they loved about each other they soon rediscover what they hated about each other too, and heated words give way to violence.

It's hard to argue that Stephens and Chancellor aren't perfect casting for these roles; Stephens is essentially a walking smirk, so born to play the insufferably smug charmer who makes you laugh with him against your better judgement. And Duckface is even better, haughtily cutting him down and the very image of cool, calm and collected, all the better to have that facade shatter when Elyot and Amanda's code word of "Solocs" no longer keeps the couple from each other's throats. The other pair back them up well too, although Calf does swallow his lines a bit occasionally.

Kent's production is probably broader than any Coward I've seen before. There's presumably purists who would complain but for my money it succeeds in getting plenty of laughs, which have been notably lacking in some other revivals of the playwright's work I've seen in recent years. True, the darker side isn't explored much - the domestic violence the couple regularly inflict on each other is pure slapstick, but it's really rather well-done slapstick, and this isn't a production that aims for any kind of naturalism - this is a stylised, silly look at people who can't live together, but can't live apart either.

Thanks to an elaborate revolve from Anthony Ward (the set change getting its own round of applause tonight) the production also manages to do a fast set change from Riviera balcony to (opulent, but rather oppressively decorated) Paris flat, meaning the interval can be left until after Act 2, and we don't need to spend two consecutive acts in the middle of the couple's implosion without a breather in between. The trend in recent years seems to have been to look for the dark underside of Coward, which is a fair ambition but often leaves the laughs behind. This Private Lives instead takes the playwright's word on it being a silly play, and provides a perfectly enjoyable piece of West End entertainment, if perhaps not one to be remembered through the ages.

Private Lives by Noël Coward is booking until the 21st of September at the Gielgud Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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