Written by Noel Coward some 88 years ago in 1930, “Private Lives” is a comedy of manners showcasing his trademark wordplay, badinage and wit. Performed by the London Classic Theatre Co, this is Director Michael Cabot’s first foray into Coward. The prospective downside of this is inexperience, the upside, that he would not have tackled it if he did not feel that he had something to offer the play.
The action unfolds on the balconies of a hotel in Deauville in the first act, and in a swanky Parisian apartment in the second. Set and Costume designer Frankie Bradshaw excels with the former. Bright, art-deco and stylish, it features two rooms with balcony, side by side, cocooned centre stage, symmetrical, and resembling a television studio. It perfectly meets the demands of the dialogue.
A tight cast of five demonstrably enjoy themselves. Newlyweds Sibyl ( Olivia Beardsley) and Elyot (Gareth Bennett- Ryan) open as the ill-matched couple, Bennett- Ryan exuding exasperated ennui, Beardsley combining an irritating personality and irritating voice with commitment and conviction. But it is their neighbouring room guests who ignite the fun. Victor (Paul Sandys) combines pomposity and vacuity in equal measure. Amanda ( Helen Keeley), ex -wife to Elyot, speaks at breakneck speed , revels in her role as feisty femme fatale, and shows off a beautiful backless antique gold dress with panache and vim.
Cabot has the production, which lasts less than two hours including interval, charging along at some pace, being to theatre, what the Ramones were to pop music. This leaves no space for the audience to become bored, whilst occasionally racing through some lines which may have been better appreciated if the audience had been given more time to savour them.
Coward’s script does not feel dated, although the impact and nuances of divorce will be less keenly felt by a modern audience than would have been the case with a contemporary one. Elyot’s second half punch to Amanda’s face brought gasps from the audience, as did his line “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”. Yet Amanda gives as good as she gets, a more palatable outcome for twenty first century consumption. Their passionate chemistry largely convinced, their bickering convinced absolutely, at one point they seemed to be reprising an argument I had engaged in with my partner earlier in the day!
The highlight of the evening is the awkward breakfast scene as Elyot and Amanda park passion and poison to down pastries, while Victor and Sybil go to war. Coward described Victor and Sybil , as “little more than ninepins, set up to be knocked down” but Beardsley’s Sybil shows she can do a bit of knocking down herself in the surprise denouement.
A well-attended opening night gave the players rousing, generous, and deserved applause for a production which runs till 3rd February at Derby, and continues on nationwide tour until the end of April.