First produced in 1930, 'Private Lives' was drafted in less than a week by Noël Coward when he was 30. Being a product of English society of the (late) 1920s, it's full of quaintly grand language such as 'frightfully' and 'awfully', all mixed up with a good dose of 'darlings' to finish it all off. Language that's about as far from that spoken today as it's possible to imagine, you may think. And that is largely the case, though the second and third acts offer some linguistic variations as the temperature rises.
'Private Lives' is a play about sexual attraction with just 5 characters – one of which is the minor part of a French maid (ably played here by Caroline Lena Olsson). The main characters are two couples – Amanda and Victor, and Sybil and Elyot – who have just got married and are on honeymoon. The newly-weds are staying in adjacent rooms in a swanky hotel. The action for the first act takes place on the balconies of the hotel rooms and provides for much humour as the occupants realise who is staying next door.
Rob Howell's design is dominated by louvre shutters for the hotel balcony scene in act 1, but he conjures up a sumptuous set for Amanda's flat in Paris for the next two acts. One fine invention is an ingenious fish tank split into three bubble-like sections. Apart from simply housing fish, it serves a greater purpose in the arguments between Amanda and Elyot.
The key element in this version of 'Private Lives' is that the leading role of Amanda is played by Kim Cattrall, best known perhaps for her role in the TV series 'Sex And The city'. However, Ms Cattrall is no newcomer to the London stage, and her performance here is about as confident and assured as you could expect – one could even say magnetic. Ms Cattrall is an Amanda with a mind of her own, prone to living in the moment, not shy of lying when circumstances require it and not above fighting back when occasion demands.
Matthew Macfadyen is a suitably suave and confident Elyot, a man who is drawn to risk and taking chances, and in love with the idea of being 'in love'. Simon Paisley Day is well-cast as the straight-laced Victor who, one suspects, would be more at home behind a bank manager's desk (if there is still such a thing) lecturing customers on the benefits of austerity. And Lisa Dillon as Sybil initially provides a kind of homely, girl-next-door charm, but in the end proves she can stand her ground and fight along with the rest.
'Private Lives' is stylishly and tightly directed by Sir Richard Eyre, even if it's a traditional kind of rendering of the play. My only reservation about either the acting or directing was that I couldn't understand why Victor suddenly became so nervous and jittery in the last act, jumping almost out of his skin at the slightest sound. I couldn't see what provoked this, or why his response needed to be so intense.
A spirited and engaging revival, the only niggling doubt I have is what 'Private Lives' really tells us that is instructive or illuminating. Perhaps at the time of its first production, audiences would have been shocked by the initial proposition and the focus on sex. But after the first act, there's not much going on apart from a lot of arguing. And that's where it really ends up, leaving us hanging almost in mid-air. Perhaps Coward's point was that is how most marriages end up – in one long row. Depressing in a way, but given the current divorce rate and the demise of marriage as an institution, perhaps he was right. Nonetheless, it's still an unsatisfactory ending.
"Exhilaratingly funny revival ."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Terrific fun and wickedly well-constructed"
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"Classy revival, expertly staged by Richard Eyre...But, while it will give pleasure, the partnership of Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen as Amanda and Elyot never struck me as hatched in some ante-room of heaven."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Wonderfully funny and fabulously sexy, Private Lives has lost none of its allure."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"This is a satisfying and intelligently conceived production. It’s fluent, very funny and at times dazzlingly well-acted."
Henry Hitchings's for The Evening Standard