Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre, London – review

There’s many a warring couple in world drama, but none matches Noël Coward’s Amanda and Elyot for style. “It doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous,” shoots Elyot, in one of their many spats. “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous,” she retorts, quick as a flash. But beneath this quick-draw epigrammatic duelling lies real heartache. One of the great challenges for actors is to deliver, without strain, the caustic verbal wit in this celebrated 1930 play, while suggesting the torment raging beneath the surface. In Jonathan Kent’s giddily enjoyable production (seen in Chichester last year) Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor pull this off superbly.

We first meet the divorced couple separately, on adjoining balconies in a French hotel, where they happen to be honeymooning with their respective new spouses. But already we sense their former passion through its clear absence in their new pairings. It’s there in Stephens’ languid air, as his Elyot flicks cigarette ash impatiently and tolerates, rather than encourages, his new wife Sibyl’s embraces. It’s there in Chancellor’s tiny moment of recoil as her new husband Victor presses her to his sensibly jacketed breast. And then when they do meet, it’s there behind every clipped exchange. The arch symmetry of the play can be irritating, but here it emerges as significant: a tidiness imposed by Coward to chafe deliberately against the dark, swirling messiness of the feelings that drive events and to reflect the strain between constancy and desire.

Chancellor and Stephens surf the well-known witticisms with flair, but they also catch beautifully the shift in mood as, with the aid of “cheap music”, longing overwhelms them. They have tremendous chemistry: simmering sexual tension in the first act gives way to raw, feral intimacy once we shift to Amanda’s art deco flat in Paris (gorgeous design from Anthony Ward), and the two tumble about in their pyjamas. They’re perfectly pitched: captivating, gaudy creatures one moment, spoilt, sullen and vicious the next. And what they and the production convey eloquently is that behind all this recklessness lies pure panic. The tragic nub of the play is that love, life and desire are all transient: Amanda and Elyot are cocking a snook at death.

None of this would work without good foils. Anna-Louise Plowman, as a not-so-sweet Sibyl, and Anthony Calf as a decent, perplexed Victor, snap spectacularly at the end. They, too, fly a bit too close to the flame and get singed.

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