ComedyDramaReviewSouth East

Private Lives – Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Esther Richardson
Reviewer: Michael Gray


“Quite amusing. A bit dated.” That was a soundbite in the rush to the bar after Act Two. Possibly the same gentleman who was gently snoring during the quieter Deauville scenes. I hope he stayed (awake) to see stuffy, “I’m glad I’m normal”, Prynne kissed unexpectedly on the lips…

Despite its eighty-six years, “dated” is one criticism that hardly applies to Private Lives, especially in this lively, stylish production by Esther Richardson. She brings a freshness and a physical energy to the characters, especially the women. Olivia Onyehara’s elegant Sybil, for instance, is speechless with delight as she emerges onto the balcony at the top of the show. And speechless with rage and frustration in the Paris flat at the start of Act Three. The fights are very imaginatively staged: a lovely silence before the food starts to fly, and a perfect pillow fight before the shadows on the door announce the arrival of the abandoned other halves and the interval. The cream leather sofa in the apartment is creatively used. The re-united lovers spectate from it in the final moments, before packing (their shadows on the frosted glass of the bedroom door) and escaping with one last incredulous look from the doorway.

Mandy and Elly, “idiotic schoolchildren”, are beautifully done by Krissi Bohn, a meticulously well-spoken Amanda in some superb fashion-plate frocks (”a beautiful advertisement for something”), and Pete Ashmore, slightly less clipped and acid than some Elyots, occasionally losing diction in moments of rage, but a very credible character even today. Their scenes together are magic – the hotel orchestra signals a wonderful change of mood at the end of Act One, where the “round the world” exchange is charged with barely repressed emotion.

Robin Kingsland makes a convincing, staid Victor, “the pompous ass” whom Amanda has just unwisely wed. His blustery sparring with Elyot especially memorable.

Mercury favourite Christine Absalom makes a meal of two quite inconsequential moments as Louise, the maid, mining every carat of comedy gold from her head-cold, her brioche and her tea-trolley. Rewarded with an old-fashioned round on her exit.

Sara Perks has designed a stunning multi-level Paris flat, with baby grand, double bed and bear-skin rug. It’s concealed for the first act by diaphanous drapes suggesting the Deauville hotel – seagulls and lapping waves, lacking only a hint of ozone ruffling the organza.

A few deft cuts – the rodent Tiller Girls among the casualties – keep the action moving in this sparkling, hugely enjoyable revival of Coward’s ageless comedy of manners.

Runs until 4 June 2016 | Image: Robert Day

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