Monday 8 May 2023

Theatre review: Private Lives

The Donald and Margot Warehouse has been one of the high-profile venues to lose all its funding in the latest round of cuts, so we can probably expect a few seasons of familiar faces and titles to help keep the lights on. A David Tennant Macbeth has already been announced, and in the meantime a combo deal of Stephen Mangan, Rachael Stirling and one of Noël Coward's most popular plays has provided a much-needed sell-out hit. But at least Michael Longhurst's production defies expectations in other ways, with a Private Lives not quite like the ones I've seen before. Elyot (Mangan) is on honeymoon with his second wife Sibyl (Laura Carmichael,) who's 17 years his junior and only first met him a few months ago. So maybe she should have asked him a few questions earlier, as she's particularly intrigued by his first wife Amanda and their divorce.

In the next suite Amanda (Stirling) is having a similar conversation with her new husband Victor (Sargon Yelda.) Both assure their new spouses there's nothing to worry about, but they react differently when Elyot and Amanda realise who their neighbours are.

Private Lives is most famous for its farcical premise, which sees the exes bump into each other on their adjoining balconies to much comic awkwardness. But while this opening act is entertainingly handled, Longhurst's production is more interested in Coward's darker side, as he explores the thin line between love and hate when their attraction is rekindled and they run away together to Amanda's Paris apartment. Their new rule that if one of them calls out "Sollocks" they have to be silent for two minutes until they cool down keeps them from each other's throats - for a while.

The first act takes place entirely on the balconies, and as Hildegard Bechtler's design puts them on the back wall above the stage, it makes for a rare instance when the Donmar Circle offers the best view, for a while at least. Fortunately when the staging moves to the stage proper for the remaining two acts the sightlines stay good even through all the clutter on stage. Simon Slater's music is also a large part of setting the scene: In response to the mentions of the hotel band, who embarrass the divorcées by repeatedly playing "their song," Longhurst makes violinist Faoileann Cunningham and cellist Harry Napier prominent on stage, even giving them some comic business at the interval. So when their notes start to become grating and discordant, we know we're getting into a darker part of the play.

Mangan and Stirling provide the charm and fireworks that help the battling couple make sense as both lovers and combatants, and really spark well off each other. Carmichael and Yelda's roles as the foils are thankless in comparison, especially in the opening act, but they do get their moments in the final one as they're roped into Coward's treatise on how great romantic passion is tinged with violence, rage and pettiness - Vanessa enjoyed the play's lighter moments but also particularly noticed the way the "Sollocks" rule is employed in different ways by Elyot and Amanda, that reveal some of the imbalance in their relationship.

Although Coward wrote drama as well as comedy, he seems to be mainly associated with the latter, probably because of the way he's widely remembered performing his own comic songs and wittty one-liners. But I've talked before about his misogyny, and particularly the use of slapping women around for comedy, and how it's uncomfortable to watch it played with the customary light touch. So for me this is an effective rebranding - the Donmar calls it a tragicomedy - that acknowledges the significant dark side of the play and the playwright. It still absolutely nails the trademark witticisms and farcical situations, but there's now a few shocked gasps in among the laughs.

Private Lives by Noël Coward is booking until the 27th of May at the Donmar Warehouse (returns and rush tickets only.)

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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