'Private Lives' review – Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge spar delightfully in this classic comedy

Read our three-star review of Noel Coward's Private Lives, about warring exes reuniting, now in performances at the Ambassadors Theatre to 25 November.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Fans of Miranda Hart’s self-titled sitcom might recall that many of the stories told by overbearing mum Penny, played by the fabulous Patricia Hodge, involve Nigel Havers and details that her daughter would rather not know about. Hodge and Havers, who have been friends for decades, first gave their septuagenarian takes on the lead characters in Noël Coward’s 1930 classic Private Lives in 2021 and now step into their velvet slippers again for a run in the ideal West End venue – the intimate, enchantingly pretty and freshly refurbished Ambassadors Theatre.

It's unusual to have two West End productions of the same play within months. Michael Longhurst’s production at the Donmar Warehouse emphasised the darkness of the dysfunctional central relationship and featured horror film-style touches.

In contrast, Christopher Luscombe’s winsome staging is a frothily amusing star vehicle that aims to please (the perfect production is probably somewhere in the middle). Simon Higlett’s cream-and-pink hotel façade is a perfect dolls’ house that ought to be ideal for a romantic honeymoon.

The roles of sparring exes Elyot and Amanda, who divorced after a highly turbulent marriage and find themselves honeymooning with their new spouses on neighbouring balconies, were created by Coward himself and his lifelong friend Gertrude Lawrence when they were in their thirties. Hodge and Havers are about four decades older than the roles as usually cast, but it’s played straight without an explanatory framing device and it actually works very effectively.

Being 70 in 2023 isn’t what it was 1930 when life expectancy was barely 60, but the ageing up lends additional poignancy to the prevailing sense of nostalgia and the fact that age isn’t necessarily accompanied by dignity or wisdom.

Changing bodies also provide comedy – Amanda isn’t keen on an afternoon tryst on the sofa so soon after eating and Elyot’s demand “Kiss me before your body rots” feels particularly ungallant and morbid. Much of second act in Amanda’s Paris flat is spent elegantly pottering about in pyjamas, suggesting a sweeter, gentler kind of interlude – until the problematic violence, of course.

Havers, better known to my generation as a celebrity than an actor, still seems to be a heartthrob; his first appearance and his re-emergence in evening dress were met with audible sighs at the final preview. His Elyot has plenty of twinkly charm and seems to have never outgrown his petulant and self-dramatising man-child tendencies.

The regal Hodge, who was Olivier-nominated for her performance in Sheridan Morley’s biographical revue Noël and Gertie in 1990, is a goddess of high comedy with her perfect posture and beautifully modulated voice.

Amanda, who has been “jagged with sophistication” from birth, loses her composure with an expression of sheer horror at spotting her ex-husband through her compact mirror. The character will never feel remorse for her behaviour but Hodge shows that she does have the maturity to be aware that her actions have implications for other people’s lives.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart has the thankless role of the stolidly masculine Victor (originated by Laurence Olivier) but Natalie Walter shows that the schoolgirlish Sibyl (who gets the best frock of the show) is just as volatile as Amanda in her way. Excerpts of Coward’s songs are performed in a manner that acknowledges Hodge and Havers’ vocal limitations and shows how much pleasure can be found dabbling in “the potency of cheap music”.

It’s probably heresy to suggest that this play might not always be quite as witty as it thinks it is. To paraphrase, too much flippancy can be annoying, but stuffiness is worse. For Amanda and Elyot, at their age, life is too short to take things seriously.

Privates Lives is at the Ambassadors Theatre through 25 November. Book Private Lives tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Private Lives (Photo by Tristram Kenton)

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