Delicious, devilish and a little bit decadent. Noel Coward’s Private Lives graces the Devonshire Park Theatre this week with a stylish revival.
Is it meaningful or trivial? More the latter, I think, but Coward’s wit and his intuitive understanding of romantic relationships still give life to this classic comedy, almost ninety years after he wrote it. And London Classic Theatre, under director Michael Cabot, re-creates it faithfully.
1930. Deauville, France. Two newly-married couples occupy adjoining honeymoon suites in the same hotel. The scene could be set for an idyllic, lazy light romance – except that two of the four protagonists have history: and their unplanned, unexpected reunion is as sweet as malt vinegar on strawberries.
Young newlywed Elyot – even the spelling is pretentious – is cavalier, slightly hedonist and a chauvinist without shame. “Women are meant to be struck regularly, like gongs,” he declares in one of Coward’s memorably classic lines. To modern ears, it’s so offensive that you half expect to find some angry socially-conscious group picketing outside on the theatre forecourt.
But Privates Lives was not written for 2017, nor for a socially conscious world, but only for Coward’s own circle and stratum of society, and his audiences relished it. Mark you, the play’s casual amorality drew scathing censorship from the then Lord Chamberlain.
In Elyot, the playwright has knowingly created a type, a provocative character who cares not a jot, and who speaks the language of his own limited world. Opposite him, Amanda is no battered ex-wife but a passionate, attractive woman quick with wit and words. Chemistry is an over-used word in theatre, but Jack Hardwick and Helen Keeley have absolutely nailed that fusion and fission which drives their teasing, incendiary relationship.
Hardwick and Keeley exchange quips, embraces and insults in equal measure and with a machine-gun pace and timing that defies belief. Just occasionally it feels like pace for pace’s sake and the odd line is obscured. But the two-hander scenes in the second half are breathtaking – and all the more potent because the characters are never very likeable. Elyot’s narcissism is matched by Amanda’s bristling passion, and watching their duelling becomes a kind of guilty pleasure.
Coward wrote the two lead roles, just a little self-indulgently, for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Sybil and Victor are unequal as counterweights – indeed, the Master called them “extra puppets … only to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again”, although in the original production Laurence Olivier deigned to play Victor. Olivia Beardsley and Kieran Buckeridge actually do well to wind out their characters beyond mere makeweights. Olivia’s first impression is of a doting but clueless scatterhead, but even that she achieves hilariously, and by Act Three she too has fire in her eyes.
Kieran’s Victor also develops convincingly. Initially as buttoned-up as his double-breasted suit – a smart bit of characterisation-by-costume – he finally loosens the stiff upper lip and volleys his feelings at Sybil. A quite startling transformation, but gamely handled.
Completing the cast, French maid Rachael Holmes-Brown flurries her way through the marital chaos with some volleys of ripe Gallic scornfulness.
A splendid set, detailed and authentic, represents elegant Deauville hotel balconies in warm summer sunset, and then a Paris mansion flat with proper chaises-longues, and minor Impressionists on the walls. Well done to designer Frankie Bradshaw. Michael Cabot’s direction can afford to be quite light-touch, for his actors assuredly carry the dialogue and the action.
The production is halfway through a UK tour, and it feels professional and well bedded-in. Many in Tuesday night’s sizeable house will have seen the play before, but it is none the worse for reviving, and London Classic Theatre has shown the Master due respect, and done him justice. By Kevin Anderson.