Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Christopher Luscombe
We’re told that, post-pandemic, what audiences want is the familiar. Dependable, cosy productions that aren’t too challenging. Private Lives is just that, and with two heavyweight theatre favourites in the lead roles, it’s hardly surprising that the auditorium for this opening night at the Lowry looks pretty full. But what’s astonishing about this play is that, almost a century on from its first performance, Coward’s dialogue is still so sharply biting and full of witty charm.
When newlyweds Elyot and Sibyl discover they are honeymooning in the adjacent hotel room to Elyot’s ex-wife Amanda and her new husband Victor, they really should pack up and head home. Instead it’s Elyot and Amanda that make a break for it, realising their divorce, and recent weddings have been a big mistake. But how long will this re-kindled love affair last?
In 1930 the play was considered pretty scandalous, flaunting infidelity, godlessness and volatile relationships. While the shock value has gone, the play still feels completely relevant for a 21stcentury audience. It speaks of sexual and domestic equality, desire and infidelity, and of ageing. And it does all of this with a delightful lightness of touch.
This Nigel Havers Theatre Company production is polished and pacy. Havers (as Elyot) and Hodge (as Amanda) inhabit these characters with an ease that comes from their many years of live theatre. They are totally convincing as a warring couple, and equally so when locked in a passionate embrace. It means that Natalie Walter and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, as their new spouses, have a tough job keeping up, especially as these supporting roles are much less lovingly written. Nevertheless, they both make a pretty good job of it, particularly in the final scene when, after being so unfairly treated, they finally reach breaking point.
Simon Higlett’s set design seems compromised in the opening act with a boxy stylised set, the parameters clearly defined by it being a touring production. But in Acts two and three, Amanda’s Paris apartment, lavishly decorated in 1930s Orientalist style, has a wealthy bohemian vibe that creates a lovely backdrop to the illicit affair playing out, with Havers in a well-tailored dressing gown and Hodge languishing in silk pyjamas.
There really is a lot to like about Private Lives. It’s long been a repertory favourite – and for good reason. If it’s a play you know and love you won’t be disappointed with this solid production. If you’re new to it, you’ll be surprised a play that’s been around for nearly 100 years still has the power to say something new. And Havers fans will enjoy his first appearance, very nicely turned out in a dinner jacket, which certainly sent a ripple through the audience of a certain age.
Runs until 19 February 2022