Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Written while Noel Coward was recovering from a serious bout of flu, Private Lives might be an ideal play for Covid times. He envisaged himself, then 30, and his contemporary Gertrude Lawrence in the roles of Elyot and Amanda, the divorced couple who meet again while on honeymoons with their new spouses. Here they are played by the somewhat more mature actors Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge.
With the desire for escapism of the virally loaded, Coward presents a delightful world where work and money are never mentioned. Designer Simon Higlett’s set for the opening balcony scene is wedding-cake white with sugary pink awnings. There is not a crumb of real life about it, an effect heightened by Mark Jonathan’s gentle rosy lighting. At a time when a normal summer holiday was two weeks in Bognor (see A Fortnight in September) these people honeymoon in St Moritz or Deauville, visit Cannes and Venice, and know when it’s ‘the wrong time of year for Tunis’. Elyot has a ‘car in the garage’; Amanda has ‘a flat in Paris’ (gorgeously red and stylishly decorated, it turns out). These people are so cool they are even divorced, at a time when divorce puts them in ‘a hell of a mess socially’ and would definitely bar them from marrying royalty. Daringly, they joke about religion. Amanda doesn’t even believe. The ninety-year-old script is still fresh and funny. Elyot gets the plainly comic lines – ‘I never got underneath’ he says darkly, of his new wife’s mother; and he has one of those old-fashioned jokes about digestion which never fails to raise a laugh with a British audience. Amanda’s humour is more original – ‘I don’t believe in crying over my bridge before I’ve eaten it’ she declares, in an interesting mash-up of proverbs.
Delightful and witty as the repartee is, there does seem to be rather a lot of it, especially in the second act when the couple, after being blissfully together for three days, take an extraordinarily long time to get seriously physical. Writing in the current climate, Coward might have thought better of the catchphrase they choose to stop rows from escalating. Although ‘Solomon Isaacs’ can amusingly be shortened to ‘Sollocks’, it manages to be both vestigially anti-Semitic and associated with slavery.
This is a production where the question of age cannot be ignored. Hodge and Havers ( now there’s a catchphrase -they could shorten it to Hodgers?) are too well-known to be thought of as ingenus. Does it work? In one way no. The acting is utterly credible, and they sing, dance and fight with energy and style, but – if you do the maths – and assuming Coward was envisaging actors in their early thirties – his Elyot and Amanda must have got married as callow 22 year-olds. These two would have surely had enough life experience to know better. But then again, maybe not. People don’t necessarily get sensible with age. In another, more interesting way, age adds depth and richness to the text. Mostly the actors, and director Christopher Luscombe, use it to comic advantage. Amanda deters Elyot’s advances with a hilariously passion-killing line, all the funnier because she’s old enough to mean it. She complains of a ‘crick in her neck’ after a tussle on the sofa, and Havers emerges from said tussle with a pronounced limp. When Havers says ‘It certainly is horrid when one begins to crumble’ he probably knows what he means more than Coward did (although he certainly doesn’t look as if he does).
The success of this play depends on strong supporting actors and the casting is spot-on. Natalie Walter makes Sibyl as winsome and squealy as she should be, but she also makes her a person of dimension. She’s not a girl, but a woman who has married relatively late, and sees her hopes and expectations shattered. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Victor is superficially a thoroughly decent chap, but he reveals the character’s insecurity at having to live up to Elyot’s glamourous urbanity. Aicha Kossoko only appears at the end, bustling in with the sunlight as the maid Louise, but she makes a powerful impression. Only speaking French, she adds to the discomfiture of Sibyl and Victor, English abroad in more senses than one.
Private Lives is a period piece but it’s still clever and funny. With its deliciously déclassé scenes of domestic violence, and icy politeness over petit déjeuner, it still has something to say about tolerance and compatibility and how people navigate relationships.
Runs until 13 November 2021