'Private Lives' review – this darker take on Noël Coward's warring exes is fascinating but flawed

Read our review of Noël Coward's Private Lives starring Stephen Mangan at the Donmar Warehouse this spring, with performances currently through 27 May.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

There has always been pain beneath the Champagne in Nöel Coward’s eternally beloved 1930 comedy. Yes, the set-up of Private Lives is an irresistible farce — a bitterly divorced pair bumping into one another while on honeymoon with their new spouses in France — and the immaculate script teems with solid-gold one-liners, but there’s also an innate darkness to the central dysfunctional relationship.

The trick is to maintain that surface sheen while hinting at the core savagery beneath Elyot and Amanda’s obsessive love; you can’t get too seduced by the bon mots. There’s certainly no danger of that in Michael Longhurst’s revival, staged in this 50th anniversary year of Coward’s death. In fact, it swings the pendulum wildly in the other direction — yielding interesting results, but trampling over much of the play’s pleasures in the process.

Admittedly, flippant lines like Elyot’s “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” haven’t aged well. But the marital warfare is usually depicted on equal terms (and as a ridiculous escalation of their squabbling), keeping it safely in the realm of heightened farce.

Longhurst instead has Stephen Mangan’s Elyot physically overpower Rachael Stirling’s Amanda to the point of throttling her, all while the live violinist and cellist add horror film-style ominous accompaniment.

Likewise, Mangan often works against the rhythms of Coward’s text, blunting the charm we usually get from Elyot’s stream of quips (here they land stodgily and get fewer laughs) and emphasising the rage monster beneath the gentleman. It’s a provocative interpretation, but I’m not quite sure what Longhurst wants us to take away from the production. Is it that domestic violence occurs even in glamorous couples? Is it that victims can still love their abusers? The play isn’t really set up to explore either in the required depth.

But it is, of course, a riveting portrait of rampant sexual chemistry. While the verbal fireworks are somewhat lacking in the first act, Mangan and Stirling are a scorching pair once their characters hole up in a Paris love nest. Their wild Charleston and society-mocking role play demonstrates how both of them buck against convention, but it’s in the silent sections — when they call a truce from their bickering — that they really smoulder, exchanging charged looks while lighting cigarettes or playing the piano.

The statuesque Stirling is a magnificent Amanda, immediately resisting the traditional feminine box that condescending new husband Victor tries to place her in (when he pats her on the head, she looks as though she’d love to hurl him off the balcony). He romanticises their coupling, while she can hardly even remember their first meeting — Stirling emphasising Amanda’s cynical sophistication, which can tip into callousness.

She also has great fun with the mercurial Amanda’s propensity for lying — albeit badly — as she constantly shifts gears in order to manipulate the person in front of her. Again it can read as devious, but Stirling conveys real hurt too: she’s a survivor in a stifling world that doesn’t allow her to be herself, and the one person who does understand her also wounds her more than anyone.

There’s strong support too from the abandoned spouses. Thanks to Downton Abbey, Laura Carmichael has a natural facility with period dialogue, and she brings plenty of dimension to the cloying, insecure Sybil — whose immediate response to Elyot’s irrationality is to mother him (“What’s the matter, darling, are you hungry?”).

Sargon Yelda is amusing too as the self-satisfied Victor, who declares guilelessly that he’s so glad to be “normal” — right there, you can see Amanda regretting her choice. And the role of French maid Louise always offers up some quality scene-stealing. Faoileann Cunningham (also the show’s violinist) duly obliges with her memorable snorts.

Hildegard Bechtler supplies balconies with cocktail glass detailing, chaise longues, and stylish costumes — Amanda’s louche silk pyjamas and robe are particularly delectable. But otherwise, this is the rare occasion where the Donmar’s space is an awkward fit.

The balconies are marooned above the main stage, which contains the Paris flat set covered in unsightly and distracting dust sheets. The subsequent blocking then feels limited by the furniture — although it does add to the claustrophobic intimacy.

Not vintage Coward, then: more a fascinating but flawed experiment.

Private Lives is at the Donmar Warehouse through 27 May.

Photo credit: Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling in Private Lives (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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