Private Lives – Ambassadors Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Noël Coward

Director: Christopher Luscombe

It’s hard to envy anyone their divorce. But Noël Coward’s 1930 play makes it seem almost like an aspirational element of a classily louche lifestyle a regular person couldn’t possibly imagine.

It’s the arguing that does it. The play centres on the reconnection between Elyot and Amanda, a divorced couple who meet on a hotel balcony while each is on their honeymoon with new, more boring, partners, Sibyl and Victor. From the get-go, the pair argue fabulously. They draw one another in and drag each other down, back together in a deeply unhealthy relationship. It’s not that they’re made for each other, these creatures deserve each other.

Couples today can’t argue like that anymore – even if we ever could. Elyot and Amanda are a class alone, highlighted by the disordered and unattractive squabbling we then see from Victor and Sibyl. Highly stylised by Coward, Elyot and Amanda’s bickering is arch, bitchy, inventive and utterly captivating. Line after catty line lands squarely. The writing is superb and, in this production, is largely left to shine without gimmicks or much updating to our vernacular.

Having older performers take the roles adds a fascinating element. In its original incarnation, a 30-year-old Coward and his friend Gertrude Lawrence played the former lovers, where lines about how she married him to escape from her mother and rumination about the amount of time they have until they die would have had a certain romantic resonance. With Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge in the main roles here, their more advanced age brings a different feel, a freshness and nuance come to the sparky lines that a younger actor wouldn’t have had the credibility for. And while they may be older, they are no slouches. The pair really go at it – inhabiting the vim with which Elyot and Amanda fight and live perfectly in their performances.

They bring an elegance to the spite and childishness these two characters throw at each other. Together they bounce and veer back and forth between vicious words, slaps and heavy petting. Their impulsiveness when infatuated is tempered by protective bravado with vulnerability in both peeking out frequently – these two older characters have had a lifetime behind them so when they seem wary of getting hurt they must know the other is really capable of something terrible. Both Havers and Hodge shine brightly in the production, bringing emotional intelligence to these roles where the lazy temptation is clearly to play for laughs.

Christopher Luscombe’s direction keeps us moving with rapidity and zingy energy, never letting it feel voyeuristic or uncomfortable as we watch the private lives (to echo the reference made in the play itself) of these four characters unravel and then be spun afresh into something new but recognisable. Simon Higlett’s costume designs evoke expensive tailoring and an eye for style over fashion in the characters but it’s his two sets (a coastal hotel, then Amanda’s 1930’s chinoiserie-style Parisian apartment) that add the most. They’re wonderful backdrops to the foursome’s beau monde lifestyles and act as a patient but insistent reminder that these people exist in such a level of comfort that, while the quibbling on stage is emotionally quite impactful, they’re lucky enough to play around and make spontaneous decisions without any real consequences.

There are a few small edits from the touring production that travelled around the country from 2021, all to the good. It’s not long, just two hours with an interval. But it’s witty, funny, rich, and engaging, much like the characters it contains. It’s short, and very sweet, and provides some incredible inspiration for quick ripostes to try out the next time you get into an argument.

Runs until 25 November 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Blissful classic comedy

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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