The last West End revival of this play was only three years ago. Well, that was the last time I saw it in the West End. And this was the first play I saw in London's theatreland. On that historic occasion, the play was on at the Queen's Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue and Dame Maggie Smith and then husband Sir Robert Stephens were playing the main roles of Amanda and Elyot. So, it's a spooky kind of coincidence that this revival has their son, Toby Stephens, in the lead as Elyot.
That little detour down memory lane aside, 'Private Lives' was written in 1930 in just a few days while its author, Noël Coward, was suffering from flu in Shanghai. Quite an achievement. More than that he went on to perform as Elyot alongside Gertrude Lawrence who played Amanda, and Sir Noël also directed.
The play is about two newly-married couples who are honeymooning at a swanky hotel in France. The first part of the action takes place on adjacent balconies overlooking the sea. What we discover is that two of the newlyweds – Amanda and Elyot – have been married and divorced, but don't know that their ex-spouse has got hitched again, and is residing in the room next door. It is a clever idea, bordering on genius. When Amanda and Elyot discover their situation they are at first horrified, but very rapidly realise they are still attracted to each other, and hastily leave their new spouses and head for Amanda's pad in Paris to be with each other.
'Private Lives' is revived fairly regularly, presumably because it draws-in audiences still and often because famous actors are eager to fill the two plum roles of Amanda and Elyot. Bold for its time, it no longer has the power to shock as it possibly did back in the 1930s. Surprisingly though, there is still a freshness and something of the modern about it which is augmented in this production by Anthony Ward's design. The costumes have a timeless elegance, and the interior of Amanda's flat is stylish in a contemporary kind of way – it might have Art Deco motifs all over the main door, and on the freeze round the ceiling, but it nonetheless feels somehow contemporary.
There's far more, though, to Janathan Kent's fine production than impressively astute design. In particular, there's a cast in top-notch form. Anna Chancellor's Amanda seems more mature and more sophisticated than Toby Stephen's ex-spouse Elyot, who has the energy and temper of the adolescent about him, even if he does have bags of charm. In fact, both of them have an underlying immaturity – adults who have not quite learnt how to grow-up, or maybe they just don't want to, or maybe they are just bored with the continual rounds of cocktail parties, and dressing for expensive dinners. The cast is completed by Anthony Calf as Amanda's new husband, Victor, who has the demeanour of the old-fashioned bank manager about him, and Anna-Louise Plowman is Sibyl, the most vulnerable and innocent of the newlyweds.
This is a short play – at just about two hours including an interval. And the running time really reflects the main difficulty with the concept. Once we have discovered that Amanda and Elyot can't live together because they rapidly get on each other's nerves, yet cannot stand to be apart, there is nowhere else to go. The initially clever construct only takes us so far – mostly to arguments between Amanda and Elyot, which turn-out to be rather violent. After that, there is nothing of consequence to say, but maybe it is enough. We don't feel much in the way of sympathy or empathy for either of the main protagonists, and when the other two newly-weds start arguing and fighting, any sympathy we harboured for them evaporates as well. Presumably, this is what Sir Noël intended because he seems to be saying that some people just aren't suited to being joined together as a marital item. Whatever the moral, there's still plenty to laugh at with some wonderful Coward lines which means the play is still entertaining even if it has a darker, less acceptable side to be found in the intimate partner violence between Mandy and Elyot.
"Deliciously fresh revival."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Dazzling, razor-sharp revival "
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"The lack of raw passion might not matter so much if Kent's production had the lightness of touch to get away with it, but after a sublimely delicate first act, he loses his hold on the comedy."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"This is a comedy that in Jonathan Kent’s superb production feels forever young, fresh and delightful...This is a gloriously entertaining evening, opulently designed by Anthony Ward, and offering two hours of comic bliss."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph