Noel Coward’s Private Lives is an absolute scream, much like those issued by divorcees Elyot and Amanda during their many sparkling skirmishes.
It’s really no wonder that this production of Coward’s delightful play has transferred from Chichester Festival Theatre after selling out. Now housed in the grand and beautiful architecture of the Gielgud Theatre it’s perfectly offset by Anthony Ward’s wonderful sets of Paris.
Coward’s writing has always been a particular favourite of mine owing to the extreme sharpness of the humour being deployed so quietly. Private Lives, written in only three days, does exactly as intended: tickle you silly whilst a gentle undercurrent challenging the borders of gender and sexuality bubbles beneath. Coward’s favouritism is obviously with strong Amanda as opposed to Sybil’s by-the-book ladylike manners, and it pleased me to see his commendation, particularly in his portrayal of Elyot and Amanda’s equal marriage, both hitting each other just as hard!
Thoughts plaguing Coward in his own life are clear from the vehemence in which the main characters are drawn to each other – searching for something to make their life mean the same thing they view others’ lives to mean. Speaking about the inevitability of death, and in such flippant terms, indicates his own philosophical musings which he belittles, too. A thought-provoking insight into the mind of the playwright.
Elyot, played in this production by the interminably sexy Toby Stephens, and Amanda, played by bold Anna Chancellor, meet on their respective honeymoons after being divorced from each other five years earlier. This is the foundation for Coward’s whole play: unfathomable coincidences and extraordinary behaviour.
Their new partners, Sybil (Anna-Louise Plowman) and Victor (Anthony Calf) provide fantastic supporting characters. Plowman demonstrates Sybil’s childish possessiveness in her incessant questioning of her new husband. Completely and aptly cringe worthy, its brilliant fun to watch, as were her well timed fits of hysteria. Calf was equally irritating in his staid Victor, also desperate for a sliver of the fiery passion his new bride Amanda directs at her ex-husband.
Stephens embodies the essence of his character so well it makes me wonder whether he is quite so suave, insouciant, louche and gauche (and other lovely French words) in his personal life. His chemistry with Chancellor is formidable, particularly in the face of her rebellious and unreliable fiery temper. They are clearly drawn to each other, the sexual chemistry of two people who shouldn’t be together constantly crackling and exploding into rage and back again throughout. The decadent and selfish love of the flammable couple is reflected in the extravagant Parisian flat littered with bourgeois trinkets; Ward’s set is fabulously perfect.
Set in the 1920s/30s, Jonathan Kent’s production at the Gielgud theatre is fluid and reflects the timelessness of the story perfectly. Though noted by the hair and makeup, fashion rotates continuously and so it’s difficult to remember the period throughout. It just goes to show that relationships really haven’t changed much at all that a story written set more than 50 years ago is as relevant today as it was then.
Well directed, it is undeniably light and short, though the brazen quips and razor sharp retorts make it audaciously enjoyable.
Private Lives is playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 21 September. For more information and tickets, see the Gielgud Theatre website.