Review: Private Lives. (touring) Cambridge Arts Theatre

After nearly a century since playwright Noël Coward first came up with its plotline while he recovered from the flu (true story), Private Lives is back on the road again.  Created by Nigel Havers’ eponymous production company, the play visits Cambridge this week to bring Havers and Patricia Hodge together in an exploration of one couple’s attraction to (and equal resentment of) each other, five years on from their bitter divorce. 

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Elyot (Havers) is on his honeymoon with new wife Sybil (Natalie Walter), unaware that his ex-wife Amanda (Hodge) is staying in the next room with her new husband Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart).  Old resentments rise to the surface again once the former lovers are awkwardly reunited, although both parties appear to still be carrying flames for the other along with the baggage.  Unsure if they hate each other, love each other, or are stuck in a mixture of the two, Eylot and Amanda try to figure out their situation, bringing their oblivious new spouses along for the journey.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Coward’s words may be more than 90 years old but they still work, fizzing like chilled champagne, and carrying similar warmth, with the barbed retorts deliciously delivered.  Director Christopher Luscombe manages to achieve a classic feel without the play ever becoming stuffy, and maintains a quick and steady pace, helped by the excellent timing of his cast. The lines come thick and fast, with Hodge & Havers’ scenes feeling like a verbal rally worthy of Wimbledon, and Coward’s wit prevents the play from feeling like a dry museum piece.  The sets are effective, using a hotel’s double-balcony exterior for the first act, and an Art Deco-inspired apartment for the second and third acts, both of which help create a French feel throughout.  This is enriched further by a subtle background score, alongside occasional use of songs, again composed by Coward.

Elyot and Amanda are an interesting pairing, unable to live with or without each other and both equally flawed.  Elyot is the more unlikeable character, although this is no disservice to Havers who gives a great performance.  It’s just difficult to see what Amanda sees in him based on how he treats her, although she herself does acknowledge this and questions her own actions later in the piece, and in truth she is often as volatile as he is.  However, given the era in which the play was written, it is wonderful to see a female role from this time where the character has her own agency, sexual identity and backbone;  she’s neither a wallflower nor a man’s accessory, or simple window-dressing.  It’s the sort of role Katharine Hepburn excelled at back in the day, as Hodge does here.

Walter and Bruce-Lockhart also turn in strong and likeable performances as the new spouses trying to move out of the shadows of their predecessors. Both actors are competent, although the characters’ personality changes in the final act do feel a little forced and seemingly come from nowhere. Aïcha Kossoko also does well in a very minor role as French maid Louise, despite being given relatively little to do. The role could definitely be made funnier (unless everything she says is actually comedy gold and your French is just better than mine).

Unsurprisingly, Private Lives is at its strongest whenever Hodge & Havers are bouncing off each other, and as is usually the way with drama, the play is more interesting when the former lovers don’t like each other. The first act is the strongest, with terrific interplay of thinly-veiled insults swapped over cocktails on a hotel balcony.  Post interval, the plot brings the couple back together for a time, which is dramatically less interesting.  These characters are far better at each other’s’ throats than in each other’s arms, and although it is nice to see the affection that this couple still has for each other beneath all the animosity, the next inevitable quarrel is a more exciting prospect.  Luckily, said quarrel is never more than a few minutes away, however this does then start to feel slightly repetitive.  Eventually the bickering and rowing descends into farce, which is where the play loses its finesse; these scenes are much less successful, replacing Coward’s delicate wit with more physical humour which sometimes threatens to cheapen the piece.

It’s hard to imagine two contemporary actors being a better fit for these characters than Hodge & Havers, and with this casting, the play does deliver a good night out. They’re clearly enjoying themselves up there, and this ensures that the audience does too.  The play does feel like it runs out of steam in its final third, and it does stray too closely into farce for comfort at times, but it’s worth your time and money to watch actors of this quality delivering Coward’s dry charm.  The piece also works well within the auditorium of Cambridge Arts Theatre itself, which continues to be welcoming and friendly as always.

Private Lives runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday 27th November 2021 before resuming its UK tour in January 2022.

  • Feature runtime 2 hours including interval.
  • Evening performances 7.30pm
  • Thursday 25th matinee 2.30pm, Saturday 27th matinee 3pm.
  • Tickets £20-£45


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