Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Michael Cabot
Reviewer: Helen Tope
It is a story we could finish for ourselves. Two sets of newlyweds meet whilst honeymooning in the French Riviera. Elyot Chase – married to Sibyl – is horrified when he discovers his previous wife, Amanda, and her new husband, rooming next door. Words are exchanged, looks; sparks fly. We think we know how this should end, but we don’t, because this is Private Lives, and this is a comedy cut from a smarter cloth.
Private Lives has always been well-starred. Written in just three days, Coward’s play opened at London’s Phoenix Theatre in 1930 to great acclaim, and it continues to be his most popular play. Coward’s work – witty, urbane and charming – follows in the tradition of playwrights such as Oscar Wilde. While the obvious comparisons can be made, beneath the surface, both Wilde and Coward’s plays demonstrate a formidable intellect at work.
Private Lives is a tale of cruelty; emotional and physical. Coward’s portrayal of our deepest impulses may be dressed up in sparkling wit, but the brilliant shine Coward produces, is not to dazzle, but to illuminate. In this production by London Classic Theatre, the emphasis is squarely on the material – and it’s a very smart move.
Most recently, productions of this play have focused on star-billing; the 2010 version starring Kim Cattrall and Matthew MacFayden proving to be a particularly hot ticket. But in this production from London Classic Theatre, there are no bankable names. But far from being a weakness, without the distraction of star-power, the play itself takes centre stage.
The performances are uniformly good; the ensemble work well together, but it’s clear that Jack Hardwick, as Elyot Chase, is the most at home in Coward’s world. His confidence with the sparring scenes is never overstated, just present. This is a play that lives or dies on its delivery, and Hardwick creates an Elyot that is fresh and modern. He is instantly recognisable as the man whom life has treated rather too well.
The staging itself could afford to be looser. Private Lives may be a period piece, but it’s ruled by passion; wild, chaotic and joyous. Just think of Brief Encounter. The clipped accent always betrays itself; Coward’s characters are creatures of flesh and blood. Beyond the gorgeous clothes, the exotic locations and flashy cars, there are impulses too strong to ignore.
But it is Coward’s lines – sparkling, deft, piercing – that is the main attraction. You don’t risk missing a beat because there’s nothing getting in the way. It makes this a perfect introduction to Coward’s work. While it’s not the most sophisticated interpretation of Coward you’ll ever see, the clean, stripped-back approach really suits the play. This production does a great service in reminding us of what a skilled dramatist Coward was. It is a production that may not contain big-budget, high-profile names, but it needs none of that borrowed glamour. Private Lives pulled back to the bone, reveals a play that’s barely aged since its debut. A striking lesson in love, cruelty and desire. Not a word is wasted – just the way Coward would want it.
Runs until Saturday 25 November | Image: Sheila Burnett