Private Lives review from 2001

Wednesday, 10 October, 2001
Review by: 
Darren Dalglish

“Private Lives” is one of Noel Coward’s best plays and this production by Howard Davis is magnificent with a brilliant cast that take you on a dream trip of two and a half hours of pure comical and lyrical delight.

The story is set in France in the late 20's and is in three acts. Amanda and Elyot have been divorced for 5 years and have recently married new partners. On their respective honeymoons, to their horror they discover that they are honeymooning in the same hotel in adjacent rooms. Their initial distress at this turn of events soon disappears as they find they still love each other and so decide to elope together to Paris. However, it is not long before their old habits return and the reasons they got divorced in the first place begin to re-surface. And how will they react when their new spouses track them down?

The beauty of this play is the exceptional script and one-liners that Coward has written. The script is witty and intelligent and is pulled off by a sensational cast. Lindsay Duncan as ‘Amanda’ is outstanding. Her timing and body language is a dream as she executes her wonderful put-downs. Alan Rickman as ‘Elyot’ is equally terrific with precision timing and incomparable pose. Emma Fielding as Sibyl’ and Adam Godley as ‘Victor’ play the two ‘dopey’ abandoned partners with a silliness that compliments the main characters.

The pace of the show is breathtaking and you never have the opportunity to get bored. You just sit back and relish the wonderful rapport between the characters. The action really hots up in the second act when Amanda and Elyot’s verbal abuse of each other turns physical.

The set design by Tim Hately is a wonder. In the first act the stage is turned into a giant white hotel with 4 floors each with 2 balconies. It is stunning and really sets the scene. In the second act the stage is converted to a large posh Paris flat with lots of cushions, lamps and lush red curtains that create a wonderfully decadent atmosphere. I expect an Olivier award nomination may be in the offering?

I saw a good production of this play at the Royal National Theatre a couple of years ago with Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser, but this production is far snappier and sharper.

This production has received good notices from the popular press…. CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says the play as a” masterpiece” and goes to say, “perhaps the finest light comedy of the last century”. He finishes his review, “This is a great production, which reveals Private Lives to be unexpectedly wise and touching, as well as blissfully funny.” SUSANNAH CLAPP for the OBSERVER says, “Howard Davies's production of Private Lives - the play in which Coward pronounced Norfolk 'very flat' and suggested that some women should be beaten regularly, 'like gongs' - purrs along like a well-tended Thirties motor.” LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, “Howard Davies's very funny, very deep and subtle revival of Noël Coward's masterpiece.” PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, “Lovely, liberating revival.” NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “This is a terrific, escapist evening to be savoured.” JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "Howard Davies's production of Private Lives (Albery) is like a breath of dark, hot wind in a cool drawing room. Coward's crisp staccato sparkle is laced with the melancholy of experience."

This is theatre at its very best and I urge you not to miss it.


Links to full reviews from newspapers...

Daily Telegraph
The Independent
Evening Standard
The Guardian
Sunday Times

Next review by Tom Keatinge
Nov 2001

Sitting in the Albery Theatre on a Sunday afternoon watching Noël Coward’s Private Lives, it was hard to believe that West End theatre is currently suffering a potentially bankrupting downturn in audiences. Even the most restricted-of-viewing seats were filled and there were several touts in St Martin’s Lane. But then I suppose it is not surprising, after all, this is the play that Tony Blair chose to visit, in order to confirm for us all that the West End is safe for visitors. Of course, given the middle class love of Coward, and the “easy listening” nature of the piece, this play is possibly the least in need of prime ministerial support – it is a shame his taste could not have been a bit more adventurous. In any event, PM or no PM, Howard Davies’ production of Private Lives is certainly worth the restricted view of the inflated prices the touts were asking.

The story is simple – two divorcees, Elyot and Amanda, remarry, and find themselves sharing adjoining balconies in the same honeymoon hotel in France. Five years of separation, seems to have obscured the miseries that forced them apart, and they decide to leave, then and there, abandoning their new spouses, and heading for Amanda’s flat in Paris . . . end of Act I. Acts II and III find us in the Parisian apartment as the renewed flames of Elyot and Amanda’s passion quickly die, and the y return to their old, argumentative and combative ways, until Victor and Sibyl appear and the play move toward some sort of chaotic conclusion. Not much of a plot, but then it is not the story that so entrances us, but the dialogue, the brilliant combination of wit and incision that is truly the hallmark of Coward at his best.

But what of this production and its players? It is easy for the most unexciting of actors to appear witty and clever with Coward’s script, but all the more difficult for it, to truly master a performance. Lindsay Duncan is exquisite as Amanda; sophisticated, sexy and quite perfect as if the part were written for her. The young newly weds Sibyl (Emma Fielding) and Victor (Adam Godley) act admiral foils and balance for their senior partners, with Emma Fielding in particular playing her innocent, starry-eyed naivety marvellously. Yet for all this presence on stage, a beautiful set by Tim Hatley and the luscious book that is Coward, Alan Rickman brought out a polarised reaction in me. His timing, his manner and feel for the part were quite fantastic, yet the trademark monotone with which he delivered his lines was at times excruciating.

It is hard not to draw comparison with Coward’s other current West End offering Star Quality (albeit not entirely all his own work), at the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue. For me, that production has as much fantastic verbal alchemy, but offered more substance, more satisfaction. But these are high standards, and Private Lives is a tremendous and highly enjoyable production – if only other, less naturally and innately fortunate West End productions could receive prime ministerial blessing.

Tom Keatinge

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