It is many years since I last saw Private Lives and, to my shame, I had forgotten what a beautifully written, expertly crafted, superbly structured and, above all, witty play it is, despite what Noel Coward himself said about it being written in the space of four days whilst he was in Japan recovering from influenza!
First staged in 1930 at the newly built Phoenix Theatre in London it was intended as a vehicle for him and Gertrude Lawrence, the premise being that Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Amanda ( Patricia Hodge), who were once married, find themselves in the same Deauville hotel sharing the same view from adjoining balconies, both being on honeymoon with their ‘new’ spouses, and, to their initial horror, even sharing cocktails…
Havers quickly dispels any idea that he might try to emulate Noel Coward and plays the now ageing “ex” with glee, instinctively knowing how to point each barbed line with maximum effect and humour, superbly confident in the role and using the Havers’ trademarks of cheeky grin and raised eyebrows.
Hodge is the perfect foil, pretending to be shocked by everything he utters, whilst in reality, joining in their sparring with gusto, as well as revealing a pleasing singing voice – “Some Day I’ll Find You” has never sounded like this before! Together they give the play so much energy whilst knowing exactly where to relax the pace in order to prepare us for the next “set-piece”. One just sits back and admires…
Sibyl, Elyot’s “new” wife (Natalie Walter), has perfected the most awful voice: how on earth could anyone wish to spend more than a few minutes in her company, let alone marry her, we wonder, and as for her mother thank goodness, Coward did not write her into the play!
Amanda’s second husband is boring, stodgy, Victor – subtly played by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, both looking and sounding the part, especially in the awful suits he is given to wear!
We do not see the fifth member of the cast, Amanda’s maid Louisa, until the second half of the play, but Aicha Kossoko has honed her role to perfection, getting every nuance of it that is possible, and being very funny at the same time.
This is, in every respect, a sumptuous production, especially with regard to the set for Acts Two and Three, Amanda’s Paris apartment, which is the most gorgeous art-deco set, appearing to more than fill the stage – Simon Higlett’s designs here truly complement director Christopher Luscombe’s larger than life direction. Coward’s original music is used throughout in appropriate arrangements by Nigel Hess.
Private Lives was planned and seems to have been touring since well before the very first ‘lockdown’, now well over two years ago, and with only one more venue to come (Nottingham), I had wondered whether it might look “tired”, but I need not have worried, the first night at well-attended Brighton Theatre Royal seemed as fresh and alive as it must have been all those months ago!
Very highly recommended as a feel-good, relaxing, truly laugh-a-minute evening – ATG is still offering seats for £13 for each performance, Brighton is only one hour from London and, for those who retire early, there are three matinees this week! Just go and enjoy The Master!
Review by John Groves
Elyot and Amanda, who were once married, find themselves on honeymoon with their new partners, in the same hotel on the French Riviera, admiring the view from adjoining balconies. Their initial horror quickly evaporates and soon they are sharing cocktails. Who knows what the future holds for them now…
The Olivier Award winning Patricia Hodge, one of the country’s most loved actresses, plays Amanda. Nigel Havers, ever suave and thoroughly charming, plays Elyot, the role taken by Noël Coward himself in the original production in 1930.
Theatre Royal Brighton
11 – 16 April
0844 871 7615*
Nottingham Theatre Royal
18 – 23 April
0115 989 5555