Private Lives follows the turbulent and confused relationship between Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne over the course of a few days. As can be expected of Noël Coward, there are plenty of ups, downs, laughs, hysterics and sheer oddities during the play, which keep the audience entertained throughout. Having seen a slightly lacking Hay Fever last year, I was really hoping that this production would give the play the pace and energy required by Coward’s brilliant writing. I can safely say that Private Lives did not disappoint at all.
In terms of the actual play, although there is very little plot the roller coaster of Elyot and Amanda’s respective and mutual relationships provided enough entertainment and social observation that it didn’t really matter! Coward uses the play to comment on the paradox that he saw in the high society of the 1920s. Amanda and Elyot are fantastically decadent, uncaring and ‘utterly modern’, which, as Philip Hoare points out in the programme, acted as an antithesis to the economic problems of the time. This is all obvious in the characters’ rejection of seriousness, and the sumptuousness of the set, which was a beautifully crafted revolving scene that alternated between a hotel balcony and Amanda’s Parisian apartment – decorated richly to the height of Art Deco fashion. While Private Lives probably isn’t the most thrilling in terms of plot, it certainly gives us a window into the lives of the young and rich of the 1920s, as well as plenty of moments of sheer entertainment.
This production, directed by Jonathan Kent, made use of the exquisite talents of Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor (yes, I saw Duckface in the flesh, it was too exciting and nostalgic!) Both principal actors were excellent, getting equal laughs from the audience thanks to their impeccable one-liner delivery and physical ability. Stephens was playing Elyot in a way that very much reminded me of a typical Hugh Grant character, only if Hugh Grant could actually act, and so achieved a hilarious mix of caddishness and flippancy. Chancellor was simply brilliant as the self-indulgent and confounding Amanda. My favourite moment of the entire play was her dancing to music from Rite of Spring as a way frustrate Elyot. It had me and my sister in tears of laughter, particularly because I knew that the random arm movements and jumping were all too in keeping with the proper choreography. All the actors (Anthony Calf playing Victor Prynne, Anna-Louise Plowman as Sibyl Chase, and Sue Kelvin as the French maid Louise) portrayed their fantastically typecast characters very convincingly and each clearly understood the tone and speed needed to bring Coward’s words to life. The only criticism I would level at the actors in general was that they didn’t project quite as much as was needed. Although for the most part I could hear fine, there was an elderly couple behind us (at the back of the stalls) who could clearly not hear the actors adequately, as they kept turning to each other to ask what had been said. Also, perhaps as a testament to the actors, secondary jokes were often missed because of the audience’s laughter at the first.
Overall however, Private Lives was a triumph, with everything from the acting to the set, and of course not forgetting the genius of Noël Coward, combining to create a thoroughly enjoyable and hilarious evening. As my mother and I told a woman on the tube home, it most definitely deserved its 5 stars.