Noël Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Christopher Luscombe, is very much a play of its time and with post-war gender roles less defined than pre-war gender expectations, there is much farcical merriment to be had in this exploration of the love, lust, control and passion between a divorced and unexpectedly reunited couple.
Enter Noël Coward’s world of opulent splendour full in the knowledge that this play was written for a different era audience, where the rakish male was expected to exert his caddish authority, where the female had to fight to be heard and there was absolutely no equality when it came to sexual politics. Yes, there were moments where the modern day audience squirmed and almost hissed at what was being flippantly played out on the stage, but isn’t this what Coward wanted? He wanted to be controversial, to present a hidden honesty to his audiences. Coward is famously quoted as saying: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” This reviewer can imagine a few stunned and outraged audience members back in 1930 when this play was first performed; what an absolutely scandalous representation of the British elite…and for this reviewer it is absolutely delicious.
Elyot and Amanda, two rather forceful characters who have been divorced for 5 years, find themselves honeymooning in adjoining rooms in Deauville. This chance meeting evokes old passions, stirs up old feelings and results in the two old (or new?) lovers abandoning their respective spouses as they escape to Paris on a whim of reminiscence.
The sheer abandon of this decision is replicated in the setting by Simon Higlett and lighting design by Mark Jonathan. Act 1 is set entirely on the balcony of a splendid Georgian hotel with the actors looking over the fourth wall to the sea. The pink, dusky light, heading into twilight adds an innocent and romantic atmosphere to the French coast setting. In stark contrast, the vivid reds of Amanda’s Paris flat in Act 2 are sumptuous, a little gaudy and just a little debauched. As Act 2 opens, one can feel the passion on stage through the wordplay and sensuous looks, but as Act 3 comes to a close, one considers whether this is really the fiery pits of hell.
Nigel Havers as the charming, debonair Elyot is absolutely perfectly cast. A highly accomplished stage actor, Havers has the audience in the palm of his hand throughout his whole performance, and that’s quite a feat given that Elyot is on stage for almost the entirety of the play. Everything from his gentlemanly mannerisms to subtle yet telling facial expressions are carefully crafted; Havers leaves nothing to chance. On his first entrance to his French coast balcony, there is a noticeable shift in the audience, and one can only describe it as admiration – the audience know they are in the presence of theatre royalty and they lap up every word and every gesture. This reviewer has to admit to a moment to swoon as Havers re-enters the stage in his tuxedo. How very James Bond!
A similar ripple of appreciation is repeated as Patricia Hodge appears on her adjoining balcony. Again, Hodge is perfectly cast as the independently outspoken, and incredibly witty Amanda who, like Havers, is an almost permanent feature on stage. Hodge does an absolutely sterling job of crafting a character who doesn’t quite know what she wants, but she’s determined to get it anyway. It is from Amanda’s words that the title of the play is extricated: “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives”.
Havers and Hodge together are sublime delivering Coward’s fast paced clever repartee with humour, hyperbole and yet at the same time, a realism that is recognisable to the audience. How many people truly do see us in our “private lives”? As a duo, Havers and Hodges have excellent chemistry and the interplay between them is magnificent. However, this reviewer has read that there has been some commentary on whether the play works as well with two older actors playing Elyot and Amanda when it is to be assumed that in Coward’s play, they would be in their late 20s or 30s. And this reviewer says: “Of course it does.” Having more mature actors creates another layer as the supposed worldy-wiseness and experience adds another comic layer to the immaturity of both characters, making Coward’s humorous words, even more comic. Havers and Hodges even play up to this with the hilariously scandalous out-of-wedlock (unless you’re a Catholic who doesn’t recognise divorce as Elyot points out) romp on the sofa which results in indigestion, a crick in the neck and a dodgy knee. Havers and Hodge sing, they dance, they play instruments, they kiss. they talk, they argue, they fight, they console, they adore, they hate…and then they are silent. Two whole minutes of silence on stage, and not a pin drop could be heard. Now that’s how you hold an audience!
In supporting roles, Natalie Walter (Sibyl) and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart (Victor) are fantastic as the jilted spouses and show really highlight the disparity between one’s outward persona and private life. Sibyl is sweetly hysterical and in need of a good chap to look after her and care for her; she knows what is expected of her and what is suitable. Victor is very much a steadfast British man, who is there is take care of his wife in a very unemotional way. Walter and Bruce-Lockhart play these quintessentially British roles with aplomb which makes it all the more amusingly absurd, when, in private, their true selves appear. It is in Act 3 that these characters are really able to come into their own (and do take the time to appreciate Walter’s comic facial expressions) as they shriek and yell and insult and threaten each other, all the while with a silent Elyot and Amanda observing their bout as spectators might watch a game of tennis. Perhaps they recognise the absurdity of their own behaviour as the curtain falls to rapturous applause.
To be able to immerse oneself in the grandeur and opulence of upper class Georgian life in this way is voyeuristic decadence. Act 1 particularly passed by in the blink of an eye, so enthralled are you in the plot and the relationship between Elyot and Amanda. Coward once said of the theatre. “I’ll go and see anything so long as it amuses me, or moves me. If it doesn’t do either I want to go home.” If this is the mark of a truly successful play, then this play has it in bundles.
As the inaugural play of Nigel Havers’ new production company, Private Lives has been touring the country since January 2022. It ends its current run here at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal on Saturday 23 April.