ComedyReviewSouth East

Private Lives – Civic Theatre, Chelmsford

Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Michael Cabot
Reviewer: Michael Gray

Coward’s frothy comedy of manners was concocted – as a vehicle for the Master and Miss Gertie Lawrence – at break-neck speed. And that’s how it’s delivered by London Classic Theatre, in Chelmsford for the 12th date of its national tour.

tell-us-block_editedAll over in an hour and three-quarters, including the interval. Realistic characters performing in classic Coward style – speeches to the front, consonants sharp and precise. The pace is often a plus. The four actors have achieved a chemistry that enables subtle interchanges while rattling through the speeches like well-oiled machine guns. But there is a price to pay. Difficult decisions have to be made about which lines will be allowed a laugh, and some of the worldly wit, a few of the bons mots, must fall by the wayside.

The piece is nothing without style, and Michael Cabot’s production has plenty of that. The set – by Frankie Bradshaw, who also designed the costumes – is masterly. The Deauville balconies have twin french windows, with louvred shutters, and twin bistro tables, separated by a row of standard roses. During the interval, the stage is transformed into the flat in Paris, elegantly furnished and dressed with nods to Erté and Tiffany. There are some lovely frocks, too, though even the most sheltered upbringing will have encountered a more ”ravishing” dressing gown than that sported by Elyot here.

Four splendid performers capture the mannered style very convincingly. The first honeymooning couple we meet is Jack Hardwick’s Elyot, relaxed in spats, and Olivia Beardsley’s Sibyl – kittenish and breathlessly gushing as she takes in the harbour view. A tremendous coincidence has the next suite occupied by his ex, Helen Keeley’s languorous, vampish Amanda with her new partner, Victor [Kieran Buckeridge, whose physicality, and physiognomy, seem perfect for the period]. His “rugged grandeur” is somewhat ruffled by first-night nerves, but complications come thick and fast when Amanda spots Elyot over the rose-bushes – her reaction perfectly judged.

Coward’s own “cheap music” doesn’t get a look-in here – the hotel orchestra is both larger and more remote than usual. But the “travelling the world” speech is beautifully delivered, with its unspoken undertones of love rekindled. And when the other halves emerge in their turn and spot the Duke of Westminster’s yacht, the difference in their reaction neatly encapsulated the difference between the two couples.

In the Paris apartment, Elyot and Amanda squeeze onto the chaise longue; their tempestuous relationship is punctuated by music from the mahogany Victrola and a tiny music box – no baby grand here – and by the time-outs imposed by the Sollocks truce. These moments of respite are cleverly devised as cadenzas, allowing the actors and the director to bring in subtleties not explicit in the text.

The two doors recall the symmetry of the Deauville balconies; the violent row at the end of the piece – like Elyot and Amanda, Sybil and Victor find their fights a heartbeat away from passion – echoes the confrontation at the end of Act Two.

The breakfast scene – the quartet crowding behind a small table, Elyot and Amanda happily munching brioche as their partners argue – is exquisitely done, a perfect end to this bracing sprint through Private Lives, in a stylised, and stylish, interpretation. Another fine production of a great play from this enterprising touring company.

Runs until 28 October 2017, then touring until 25 November 2017 | Image: Sheila Burnett


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