Private Lives – Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Oliver Hume
Reviewer:  Selwyn Knight

Famously written in four days as a vehicle for Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, Private Lives must have been quite shocking to 1930s audiences, dealing, as it does, quite explicitly with marital infidelity. Elyot and Amanda had a stormy and violent marriage and after three years divorced. Now five years later, each has found a new younger partner, a partner more conventional, in the hope of finding a love that is altogether more comfortable and smooth-running.

Of course, they are deceiving themselves as becomes clear after they each remarry and the two new couples find themselves on honeymoon staying in adjoining suites on the French coast. Victor and Sybil, the new partners, are obsessed with the first marriage, suggesting from the off that all is maybe not quite right with the new relationships. When Amanda and Elyot spot each other, they at first try to run away from one another but their new partners, Victor and Sybil, are having none of it and the old flame is quickly ignited again. At the end of the first act, they make a pact never to bicker and quarrel again and run away to Paris leaving Victor and Sybil alone.

In Paris, all seems fine for a few days, but the cracks are beginning to show again. Despite their agreement, bickering does get out of hand and it seems that things can only get worse as Victor and Sybil arrive. Can these four people, inextricably linked by three marriages, sort out any sort of amicable future? Coward leaves us guessing.

Private Lives shines a light on some pretty despicable behaviour, leavening it with doses of Coward’s wit. Indeed, the dialogue is fast-flowing and superbly well-constructed. One can see events unfold even while knowing where they must ultimately lead. Director Oliver Hume has chosen to accentuate the wit and humour of the piece, a device that works exceptionally well during the first act at the hotel. Darren Haywood’s Elyot is well-judged here – he delivers Coward’s lines perfectly with impeccable comic timing albeit with an increasingly generous dose of eye-rolling, pouting camp. However, during the second and third acts, this focus on the comedic value of the lines begins to detract from the events onstage, diluting their shock value – Elyot’s outrageous declaration that women should be regularly beaten like a gong passes over the heads of the audience as just another throwaway line

Hannah Fretwell’s Amanda, by contrast, is supremely well-judged and measured throughout, and, like Haywood, Fretwell displays superb comic timing. Her facial expressions and movements perfectly complement Coward’s words, wringing every last drop of meaning from every word and gesture – in a play of frankly unbelievable coincidences, Fretwell’s performance serves to make one suspend disbelief and root for her character.

The subsidiary characters of Victor (Liam Alexandru) and Sybil (Hayley Grainger) are more two-dimensional, being somewhat underwritten, maintaining the focus on Elyot and Amanda. Nevertheless, Alexandru’s patronising stuffed shirt and Grainger’s vulnerability and neediness are brought out effectively.

In a script filled with wit, Hume’s direction finds all the laughs but it doesn’t squarely hit the mark with the play’s darker elements as it progresses.

Runs until 29 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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