“This production is highly quaffable, bubbly and intoxicating. It’s not vintage stuff but it’s as near as makes no odds.”
It’s the age old story told time and again down the ages. First boy meets first girl, falls in love and, three years laters, falls back out of love. Five years later first boy and first girl have remarried to second girl and second boy respectively. But, horror of horrors, all four find themselves sharing neighbouring honeymoon suites in a French hotel. And so first boy and first girl are forced to realize that only in the most awkward of situations can their tempestuous love be sustained.
First produced in 1930, Noël Coward’s Private Lives is a situation comedy of manners providing four (and a half) sparkling character sketches crafted by the only man in the entire history of English slang to whom the term ‘wicked’ can be applied in every sense of the word. Mark Duncan, director of the 2014 Royal Lyceum Theatre Company’s production, is tasked with balancing the script’s period topicality as well as its universality. His twin supports are a hugely ambitious set and a focused team of character actors.
We enter to find that a hybrid of Benidorm and Burgh Island has landed in Edinburgh’s West End. A hotel tower block rises from the stage at an angle to make us in the cheap seats feel slightly queazy. The focus is on a balcony divided between two apartments. The success of this design is that it concentrates the tragi-comedy into a relatively small space. It’s a tight canvas on to which John Hopkins as Elyot Chase, and Emily Woodward as his new wife Sybil are the first to step.
Hopkins perfectly captures the essence of Elyot’s laconic detachment from life, triple refining his portrayal through layers of insecurity, malice and childish bewilderment. He mixes a jerky suavity with an uncontrolled natural passion. The result is a volatile cocktail which, as will become clear, no woman can fully fathom.
Woodward places Sybil between a rock and a nutcase. On the one hand her character is inexorably drawn to Elyot’s strength of character, on the other her subtle charms can hardly penetrate his granite outer surface. The script affords Woodward little space to leave her mark in the first act. What there is she artfully fills out with breadcrumbs pointing the way to later developments.
From the few biographies of Coward I have read, Sheridan Morley’s being the most unequalled, it’s pretty clear that if the great man took a dislike to you, you’d know about it pretty quickly. I don’t think Coward liked Victor Prynne. In fact I think he loathed every aspect that went into the first girl’s, Amanda’s, second husband.
Victor is priggish, stuffy, over-confident and underwhelming – the worst example of what an antipodean social commentator might aptly term ‘a whinging pommy bastard.’ Ben Deery steers this straw man expertly, so as to catch every lash from Amanda’s tongue, everyone of Elyot’s barbs and the full force of Sybil’s irre. Still, we are left feeling more sorry for the inanimate wreckage of Amanda and Elyot’s quarreling than for Victor – just as it should be.
Kirsty Besterman completes the foursome with an uncompromising vision of Amanda. Amanda likes to get sunburnt, knowing that after the pain and discomfort will come the perfect tan. She likes to play with fire in other ways and expects to get burnt. Besterman doesn’t have the spring of one-liners Coward bestowed on Elyot from which to draw strength. Instead she discovers the inner-source of Amanda’s power to fascinate and infuriate, measuring it out with a spontaneous grace both beguiling and bewitching.
All four actors do an excellent job of amplifying their characters’ traits. As with the rest of the Coward cannon, the writing is subtle but not deep. We don’t know why these people behave as they do. They are not run through a gauntlet of reprisals for their actions and behaviour. We must take them as we see them. As with the other great comic writer of his age, Wodehouse, Coward is not presenting critical social analysis. This is entertainment not moral philosophy.
To judge a classical rendition of Private Lives is to determine whether Duncan has achieved the balance between topicality and universality.
The topicality is emphasised through period pieces in the lighting, sound, set and properties. In the main these are all highly accomplished. However, unlike the set for Act 1, the hotel balconies, that for Acts 2 and 3, Amanda’s Parisian bolthole, failures to condense the drama. Somewhat artificially, the two couples are compelled to share an under-sized chaise lounge in the massive living area of her pied-à-terre. I can’t see the entrances to stage right, and much of the decor is lost upstage. The set is certainly impressive and impressively dressed but does it do the business? Not really.
None-the-less the universality of couples falling in and out of love is there. So too is the pretence and passion of romance. This production is highly quaffable, bubbly and intoxicating. It’s not vintage stuff but it’s as near as makes no odds.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 18 February)
Visit Private Lives’ homepage here.