Originally published on Reviews Hub
Noel Coward knocked out Private Lives in just four days, and in the process created one of the great comic plays of the theatre. Brimming with bon mots, stinging one-liners and wrapping it round three perfectly constructed acts, he also created two of his great roles in Elyot and Amanda. It is always a pleasure to see and almost impossible for the greatness of the play not to come through, regardless of the merits or not of the production. Tom Attenborough’s production is workmanlike and surprisingly leaden but, in its favour, looks ravishing, and in Laura Rogers’ Amanda, possesses a modern actress who can nail the notorious tricky Coward style down pat.
Elyot and Amanda have ‘been in love for eight years, three years married, five divorced’, and find themselves on adjoining balconies, each celebrating the first night of their honeymoons to new spouses Victor (Richard Teverson) and Sibyl (Charlotte Ritchie). The sparks fly and they are soon eloping, but this is a couple that can’t be together, can’t be apart and everything soon falls apart in a spectacular ding-dong of a fight to bring down the second act curtain. Nothing else comes close to matching this, the only time the temperature really rises beyond tepid.
The best productions of this play embrace the heat. Our central couple’s tete-a-tetes are really a stand in for clothes tearing insatiable lust, a couple who only really work in the bedroom. Tom Chambers’ Elyot possesses the smooth charm and witty repartee, but not the darker, passionate side. The chemistry between him and his leading ladies seems placid and platonic, a housewife favourite rather than a real rogue. Even in the brawl that concludes the second act he treats it balletic, utilising that Strictly background of his rather than raw and real.
His Elyot comes across as a bit of a snooze and it unbalances the relationship, as Rogers’ Amanda is definitely a women who will get you into trouble. Tart and glamorous, she oozes sex and class, the kind of women who will both fulfil and destroy you. Her accent could cut through glass in its haughtiness, with a hint of smokiness at the back of the throat that suggests a life spent in gin bars. It’s no wonder she has her second husband Victor wrapped around her little finger.
Teverson gives perhaps the most interesting textured work of the night, his Victor is an upstanding gentleman, the kind of man that temperamentally may be the perfect foil for his wife, calm and composed and not willing to entertain her flights of fancy, its only in the final act when his smooth veneer breaks into ranting at Ritchie’s slightly annoying Sybil (very much in the mould of her earnest performance in Fresh Meat) that the smallness of the man is revealed.
It looks gorgeous in Lucy Osborne’s design, the Parisian flat a particularly art-deco delight, but Attenborough’s direction feels sluggish even with the actors fleet of foot playing. It’s also scuppered by only offering one interval at the end of act two. Its three act structure demands two breaks, instead we have an overlong first half with a gap while the curtain comes down and a set change occurs before a very brief second. The momentum is all wrong as a result.
This Private Lives was billed as heading to the West End but, as it plays its final week of the tour, that talk has gone quiet. It’s not surprising – not starry, sexy or strong enough to survive those shark-infested waters. It’s always a pleasure to see Coward’s masterpiece but the pleasures here are fleeting and shallow, all surface when it’s what’s beneath that is really interesting.
Runs until 19 March 2016 | Image: Contributed