ComedyDramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Private Lives – Esk Valley Theatre, Glaisdale

Writer: Noel Coward

Director: Mark Stratton

Set/Lighting: Graham Kirk

Costumes: Christine Wall

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Since its foundation by actor/director Mark Stratton and producer Sheila Carter in 2005, Esk Valley Theatre has made a huge success of taking over the Robinson Institute in the village of Glaisdale for nearly a month each summer. Not only are a healthy proportion of performances sell-outs, but Esk Valley now also tours, with 20-plus dates of Bill Manhoff’s The Owl and the Pussycat scheduled to take the company around the village halls of North Yorkshire, Cleveland and Cumbria (and the occasional theatre) in October and November.

Choices for the summer season are, understandably, popular and accessible, though by no means lacking in variety: Private Lives follows the very different Educating Rita and Larkin with Women. Though the Robinson stage is hardly conducive to a sense of luxury in setting, Stratton’s production hits the right style for the brittle young things and the moneyed class of the 1920s – the play was actually first performed in 1930. Manner and speech convince, mercifully without too much self-regarding posing or exaggeratedly languid drawls – only the perpetual cigarettes pose a problem for the cast!

Private Lives is the Noel Coward comedy with the two hotel balconies and Some Day I’ll Find You (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is!”). Elyot and Amanda, originally Coward and Gertrude Lawrence – who else? –, divorced five years previously after passionately loving, quarrelling and fighting through their marriage years. Now they are in Deauville, honeymooning with their new spouses, in the same hotel in rooms with adjacent balconies.

Despite their attempts to conceal it, Elyot and Amanda are as free-spirited as ever and Sibyl and Victor, their new spouses, are in different ways painfully conventional. A smartly structured Act 1 (of three) alternates scenes with the newly married couples which echo each other, notably in Sibyl and Victor’s unwise curiosity about their predecessors, before Elyot and Amanda meet and flee to Paris, unable to stay apart, and prove equally unable to live together. So what to do now? Coward is stronger on the dilemma than the solution, but the arrival in Paris of Sibyl and Victor leads ultimately to a totally unexpected conclusion – if it is the conclusion.

Under Stratton’s astute and economical direction Nicholas Goode (Elyot) and Rhiannon Sommers (Amanda) are both excellent, flinging out the witticisms with easy nonchalance, ever-ready to dive into a passionate embrace, timing perfectly the quick burn from bickering to face-slapping. Goode resists any temptation to impersonate the Master and Sommers, mischievously knowing, enjoys the drama and the absurdity at the same time as she is torn apart from frustration and fury. Garry Summers is amusingly pompous as Victor without descending into parody – a thoroughly decent chap! – and, if Laura McAlpine’s Sibyl tends to lack variety, the note she hits is undoubtedly the right one – we are left in no doubt about her charms and her limitations.

With two sets to assemble and limited space, Graham Kirk goes for the functional with the balcony scene, but adds a few stylish details to the Paris flat, and Christine Wall’s costumes ensure that, if not the most opulent Private Lives ever, it looks right as well as sounding right.

Runs until 1 September 2018 | Image: Tony Bartholomew

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Smart comedy of manners

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