This is the first time that "Private Lives" has been performed at the Royal National Theatre and what a fine production it is directed by Philip Franks, who himself is directing at the National for the first time.
The premiere of "Private Lives" took place at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh in 1930 with a formidable cast of Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier and Adrianne Allen. It then toured to Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Southsea before having its West End Debut at the Phoenix Theatre on 24th September and then its Broadway Debut the following year. The film of the play was produced in 1931.
This 'Intimate Comedy' is set in France in the late 20's and is in three acts. The first act finds divorcees Amanda and Elyot staying in the same hotel while honeymooning with their new spouses! Not only are they in the same hotel but they are also in adjacent rooms. What will they do when they meet opposite each other on the terrace? Although their divorce ended bitterly it seems they still love each other in a warped kind of way, plus they find that their new partners are not as stimulating as they would have liked. This sets up a slapstick series of events with some delightful repartee between Amanda and Elyot as their love-hate relationship once again begins to take hold.
Juliet Stevenson is fantastic as 'Amanda', a woman who seems hard and secure on the outside, but underneath is very lonely. Her facial expressions are a dream and she has superb comic timing and body language. Anton Lesser is also painfully funny as 'Elyot' and he too has great delivery and timing. In fact these two compliment each other perfectly and make a great double act. The fight scenes are hilarious, convincing and breathtaking. Stevenson and Lesser are complimented on stage by fine performances from Rebecca Saire as 'Sibyl', Elyot's weak and flighty bride, and Dominic Rowan as 'Victor' the wet and boring, and very English, husband of 'Amanda'.
Although the play lasts nearly 3 hours with two intervals you will not notice, this is because "Private Lives" is a sparkling play that is full of energy and sharp dialogue that prevents you from becoming bored at any time.
This production has received mixed reviews from the popular press: SHERIDAN MORLEY describes the play as a "loving revival". JOHN THAXTER of THE STAGE says the show is "set to be a hit", but goes on to say "this production is not one for Coward purists". NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says the show is "Miscast" and goes on to say, "This handsome comedy of manners is left scarred and sagging." CHARLES GODFREY-FAUSETT of TIME OUT describes the play as "Stirring" and "Gutsy".JOHN PETER of THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "This is a first-rate production, observant,precisely paced, and irresistibly and liberatingly funny." THE DAILY EXPRESS says, "There's genuine moral depravity on display here - when you stop chuckling long enough to think about it, that is." THE DAILY MAIL says, "Noel Coward's perfectly constructed comedy has been given a thorough but only intermittently funny revival in the Lyttelton."
"Private Lives" is without doubt a classic play of this century and this classy production is well worth seeing.
This fast paced show was really fun having previously been done many times before including Maggie Smith and Robert Stephans, Joan Collins and Simon Jones as well as Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Having seen Private Lives now playing at the R.N.T.'s Lyttelton Theatre a couple of times, the only thing that would draw me to see it again is a star performer. Juliet Stevenson is definitely that star. You might remember her from Truly, Madly, Deeply or Emma or on TV in the Politician's Wife. I was very fortuate to see her in Death and the Maiden for which she won an Olivier. She is great as Amanda who meets up with her ex-husband Elyot on her honeymoon with Victor and ends up leaving Victor for Elyot who is on his honeymoon with Sybil. The play continues as they examine their previous marriage and ends up with them fighting with their current spouses. Juliet was as fabulous as she always is. There isn't much she can't do. The other actors were fine too though I had never heard of them. The set was especially interesting in the 2nd and 3rd acts. Amanda's Paris apartment was more vertical taking up only the middle section of the stage. It was done up in a modern sty! le with a loft up above. The loft appeared to be a bathroom but was not used at all. It got a huge hand at the opening of the second act. As I said, it is fast paced and lots of fun.
(Rodney R Anderson)