Some of Coward’s sharpest writing was about the impossibilities of love, and it is tempting to say that this was fuelled, as it was for Terence Rattigan, by the then illicit nature of his own sexuality. For Coward’s Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase, bumping into each other while honeymooning with their second spouses, the prospect of a stable romance is as impossible as it is for the not quite adulterous Alec and Laura in Brief Encounter.
What remains is the thrill of transgression, both sexual and social, the sheer bad behaviour which is bound to result from his characters’ own addictions to the irreconcilable pulls of lust and wilfulness. Coward famously wrote Private Lives in bed and in a hurry. In the middle of a hectic Asian tour, he had been laid low by flu and was convalescing in the Peninsula Hotel, Kowloon.
All very Cowardian, the essential Englishman languishing in a land of midday sun and flinging off an instant masterpiece in which he and his stage partner Gertrude Lawrence could once more flaunt their convincing stage chemistry. The writing was, and remains, feverish, verging on rabid, and is properly treated as such by director Tom Attenborough and his scrapping lovebirds. If Coward has a point to make about emotional engagement, it is, to misquote St Francis, that where there is harmony there is also discord, not to mention the similarly doomed cohabitations of error and truth, doubt and faith, despair and hope.
The plot flaunts the absurdity of its subject; a newly re-wed starts humming a favourite song on the hotel balcony and is heard by his just-married ex in the adjoining suite. The rest is violence, mostly but by no means exclusively of an emotional nature. Thanks to two tremendous performances by Laura Rogers as Amanda and Tom Chase as Elyot, the re-blazing of their marital embers roars back and forth across the long-suffering set like a seriously tooled-up love joust – Strictly Come Lancing.
Attenborough’s reading is a true one surely. Here is a sitcom with not only a wild premise but also a chain of suitably ludicrous consequences as the cuckolded other-halves start to round on each other in defence of their own new if unattainable spouses. But here too is a satire, a distorting mirror of our own less flamboyant failings, with a real bleakness at its wounded heart; in the midst of love we are in hate and vice-versa. Of course the Jacobeans were peddling similar messages, and a good deal more bleakly, with the clutter of prone bodies twitching with the agonies of death rather than the barbed ecstasies of love.
Coward’s armoury may be a verbal one, yet some of the missiles wanging round the genteel air have serious warheads. None more so than the infamous line about how women need to be struck regularly, like gongs. What was he up to? Was he endorsing Elyot’s overt misogyny? Was he asking us to share his shock? Was he abusing his own wit? Was he sympathising with women whose lot was to be on the receiving end – of the hurt as well as the alleged humour?
Thanks to Charlotte Ritchie’s subtlety in the difficult, forever upstaged role of Sybil, and Richard Teverson’s Victor, struggling for sense over sensibility, the subplot of the supposed losers enjoys a late richness. Through their attempts at intercession, a cooling-off period of twelve months is agreed upon, during which time Amanda and Elyot will consider whether they really do see divorce as the best way forward. The notion sounds a little like a clause borrowed from the constitution of Utopia – and besides, when you look again these supposedly adult voices are themselves locked into a ding-dong beyond mediation.
The theatre world and its wife, or ex-wife, has had umpteen goes at Amanda and Elyot, with echoes of their own not-so-private-lives following them in from the wings: Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in 1972; Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1983. These two (Chambers and Rogers) are worthy incumbents, each playing to the gallery of each other with a knowing intensity which suggests that it is not just their own relationship that hangs in the balance, but the viability of love itself; particularly the monogamous kind. Narcissi they may be, but they require a witness as well as a mirror.
Respect to designer Lucy Osborne for a period set which stylishly mirrors Coward’s quest for order in chaos – or should that be chaos in order – as The Twenties emit their last party roars and think quite seriously about growing up.
Review by Alan Franks
Private Lives is one of Noel Coward’s most successful and frequently performed plays, sitting somewhere between farce and social commentary it tells the story of a divorced couple who find themselves honeymooning with their new spouses in hotel rooms next door to each other.
First premiered over 85 years ago, aside from the individual performances, the repeated threats of domestic violence were at times a little unsettling and were met with gasps by some audience members and understandable so. Elyot’s (Tom Chambers) casual remarks that he would like to “cut off (his wife’s) head with a meat axe” are shocking to hear when one is not accustomed to the dialogue.
This glittering production of one of the greatest plays of all time, includes Olivier Award nominated TV and stage star TOM CHAMBERS (star of Top Hat the musical and Strictly Come Dancing winner) as the lovable and charming Elyot and Laura Rogers (Tipping the Velvet) as the unconventional and vivacious Amanda. Also starring Charlotte Ritchie (Call the Midwife,Fresh Meat and Siblings) and Richard Teverson (Downton Abbey).
Private Lives opens at Richmond Theatre
Monday 15th to Saturday 20th February 2106
Monday 22nd to Saturday 27th February 2016
Theatre Royal Glasgow
Monday 29th February to Saturday 5th March 2016
Princess Theatre Torquay
Monday 7th to Saturday 12th March 2016
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre