Coming in from the cold dark evening Frankie Bradshaw’s stage design immediately warms you up and makes you think of hot summer holidays. The stage is set as a pair of hotel balconies, simple but glamorous, identical tables on each, divided only by a row of plant pots. Sun-bleached doors half open to partly reveal the hotel rooms beyond.
Noel Coward wrote Private Lives way back in 1930 in just three days. The pace of his writing is reflected in his play, whizzing by in less than 2 hours. The play opens with newly married couple Sibyl (Olivia Beardsley) and Elyot Chase (Gareth Bennett-Ryan) on the balcony of their honeymoon suite in Deauville, France. Sibyl is besotted with her charismatic older husband and seems very insecure and clingy. Elyot is increasingly irritated by Sybil’s constant questioning about his first wife Amanda. When the Chase’s go back into their hotel suite, the other couple emerge onto their balcony. Victor Prynne (Paul Sandys) is also rather fixated on his glamorous, sophisticated wife, Amanda’s first marriage, and questions her about her first honeymoon, much to her irritation.
When Victor goes in to dress for dinner Amanda hears Elyot singing on the neighbouring balcony and is horrified to find she is honeymooning just feet away from her first husband! Both Elyot and Amanda tell their spouses that they have to leave at once before they find out about the other couple. As Sybil and Victor are not used to making snap decisions they refuse to leave. You get the feeling that in Amanda and Elyot’s marriage snap decisions would not be unusual! Forced to stay in such close proximity Amanda and Elyot start to reminisce about their marriage. Neither seems very convinced that they love their new partner their new relationships lack the passion of their own. They decide to leave together and go to Amanda’s Paris apartment.
Those were very different times and some of the customs of the time seem very old fashioned and alien now; imagine having to stage an adulterous weekend in Brighton to be able to secure a divorce! This is not a politically correct play; I don’t think anyone would dare to write “certain women deserve to be struck regularly, like gongs” today. Despite this Amanda and Elyot’s relationship seems a very modern one. Helen Keeley is wondrously sensual as Amanda you can quite understand why men fall in love with her and Gareth Bennett- Ryan is both charming and cruel as Elyot. You can really believe in their relationship, a couple who do not seem to able to live together or apart and enjoy their moments of hatred almost as much as their moments of passion.
Michael Cabot’s production is lively and wildly entertaining. This is a dysfunctional relationship but modern and passionate, not constrained by the manners of the time. The insults and cruelty are quite shocking even to the audience of today, I am very glad that I was part of that audience, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Review by Sally Knipe
1930. Deauville, France. Two newly-married couples occupy adjoining honeymoon suites in the same hotel. As a distant orchestra plays, Sibyl gazes adoringly at charismatic husband Elyot, while Victor admires his new wife, the vivacious and sophisticated Amanda.
Champagne flows and the sea shimmers in the moonlight as the newlyweds prepare for the evening ahead. But when Amanda overhears a familiar voice singing a forgotten song, an old spark reignites, with spectacular consequences.
Full of razor-sharp wit and quick-fire dialogue, Private Lives is Noël Coward’s most popular and enduring stage comedy. Extraordinarily written in only three days, Private Lives opened at London’s Phoenix Theatre in August 1930 to packed houses. Since then, this charming comedy of manners has retained its remarkable appeal, captivating audiences all over the world.
London Classic Theatre presents
By Noël Coward
Directed by Michael Cabot; Designed by Frankie Bradshaw; Lighting by Andy Grange
UK tour: 16 January – 21 April 2018