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Private Lives

by on 10 November 2021

Second Chances

Private Lives

by Noël Coward

Theatre Royal Bath Productions and The Nigel Havers Theatre Company, at Richmond Theatre until 13th November, then on tour until April 2022

Review by Andrew Lawston

Some people carry memories of an intense relationship, and regrets about how it fell apart, and it’s only human nature that they reflect on how things might have been different, and how they might approach the relationship differently if they were given a second chance.  Back in 1930, Noël Coward considered how this might actually play out for a particularly unhealthy couple, freed from such mundane considerations as money and employment.

The inaugural production from the Nigel Havers Touring Company, Noël Coward’s Private Lives has reached a packed Richmond Theatre.  The blindingly white frontage of a hotel, all plaster moulding, wrought iron balconies, and thick curtains, is a striking contrast to the auditorium’s gloomy house lights.

Starring Havers himself as Elyot, alongside Patricia Hodge as Amanda, there are a couple of apparent opening night jitters where the opening music and sounds of the sea seem to be cranked up a little high, drowning some of Elyot’s early lines.  Such is the play’s popularity, however, that a gentleman two rows behind us is reciting most of the dialogue in any case.  The plot is pleasantly straightforward.  Elyot and Amanda are a couple who divorced five years ago, ending an apparently toxic marriage.  Both remarry, and are shocked to find themselves honeymooning in adjoining suites in a Deauville hotel.  Antics, as is so often the case in these situations, ensue.  Hodge and Havers are both in their element in this classic comedy of manners, ably supported by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Amanda’s new husband Victor, and Natalie Walter as Elyot’s new wife Sibyl.  The energy never drops throughout the first act as the newlyweds’ idyll rapidly crumbles and Elyot and Amanda reconcile with charming swiftness.  Victor and Sibyl are left holding a couple of cocktails, and if their contribution to the play in this short first half seems somewhat perfunctory, they come into their own later.

The question is whether this tempestuous couple, who certainly think of themselves as older and wiser, can ever be truly happy together.  They certainly seem to take some precautions as they slope off to catch a train to Paris, promising that at the first sign of a squabble they’ll cry out “Solomon Isaacs” to trigger two minutes of compulsory silence in order to defuse the tension.  The precaution is amusing, apparently sensible, but also deeply ominous that it’s needed at all.

The lighting is simple but effective from Mark Jonathan – bright daylight for the exterior first act, the coastal setting further evoked by Jeremy Dunn’s gently breaking waves and Nigel Hess’s music (via Noël Coward himself), with lower lights for the more intimate nocturnal Paris of the second act, before returning to a brighter stage for the “morning after the night before” that is the play’s conclusion.

Simon Higlett’s set and wardrobe are simply perfect.  If the Deauville hotel façade was an impressive set for the first act, as soon as the action moves to Paris after the interval, the sumptuous art deco confection that is Amanda’s Paris flat provokes audible gasps from the audience.  Decorated liberally with cushions, and huge curtains, the reunited lovers sprawl languidly over the furniture, drinking brandy, playing cards, in comfortable but clearly luxurious pyjamas and dressing gowns.  As they discuss the simple joy of staying indoors for several nights, it’s impossible not to draw a parallel with the events of the last couple of years where many of us have been spending time indoors, but seldom in such wonderfully-designed loungewear.

Christopher Luscombe’s pacy direction keeps the energy up, and the play crackles along.  Hodge and Havers have wonderful natural chemistry in this play, and give assured performances as a couple who can’t live together, but who also can’t bear to be apart.  When their passion finally boils over into physical confrontation, their short fight, directed by Malcolm Ranson, is almost cartoonish in its sudden brutality, but both characters seek to imply through comic reactions that they’re not truly hurt.  Depicting domestic violence from a play written in 1930 in a way which will not alienate audiences in 2021 is a tricky proposition, especially when it’s being played for laughs, but the heightened depiction is an effective compromise and, as one lady sitting behind us noted at the end of the evening, “at least she [Amanda] gave as good as she got.”

Rounding out the cast, Aïcha Kossoko’s character Louise only turns up in the third act, but her bright interjections, all in French, highlight the increasing disarray as the warring couples are forced to cease hostilities in the maid’s presence.

The play’s heart lies in its second act, a two-hander with Elyot and Amanda gradually coming to terms with their toxic relationship, roaming all over and increasingly destroying Amanda’s Parisian flat.  This witty deconstruction of a vituperative and ultimately doomed relationship is the sort of thing Jean-Luc Godard would be filming in the mid-1960s, and its close observation and cynicism is the play’s bitter pill that is sandwiched by the frothier scenes that bookend it.  The first act really is the setup, and the denouement becomes a much more familiar comedy of manners with Elyot constantly resorting to flippancy in order to dodge difficult and practical questions.  The payoff, however, as Victor and Sibyl’s exasperation with their already-estranged new spouses finally boils over, rounds off a wonderful evening’s entertainment splendidly.

Andrew Lawston, November 2021

Photography by Tristram Kenton

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