Private Lives @ Hampstead Theatre, London

cast list
Claire Price, Lucy Briggs-Owen, Jasper Britton, Jules Melvin, Rufus Wright

directed by
Lucy Bailey
In 1962, at about the time when angry young men were wrenching the gaze of English drama from the drawing room to the dreariest of kitchen sinks, the Hampstead Theatre revived Noel Coward’s Private Lives, by then fallen almost entirely from favour.

Lucy Bailey’s production almost fifty years later is a timely reminder that Coward deserves more than the enthusiastic attentions of Surrey am-dram societies: there’s the familiar high gloss of wit and glamour, but plainly visible underneath an exploration of the terror of loneliness, and the near-impossibility of sustaining happiness for more than a week.
Divorcee Amanda, dazzling as a shard of glass and every bit as cutting, ventures out onto her Deauville balcony on the first night of her second honeymoon. As chance would have it, who should be enjoying a contemplative cigarette on the adjoining balcony but her ex-husband Elyot, also embarking on a second marriage. It’s instantly apparent that their marriage may have been over some three years, but the incendiary attraction between them remains. Trading blows of wit as devastatingly as Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, they fool no-one, and before the close of the first act are plotting an escape from their second spouses, who doggedly follow them to a love-nest in a Paris loft.

Claire Price, who recently excelled in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s pleasingly high-Gothic The White Devil, is superb as Amanda. No doubt there are a great many actresses who can deliver Coward’s polished lines with an arched eyebrow and astutely comic timing and Price does so magnificently. But there are very few who could murmur “Darling you’re so terribly, terribly dear,” as if the thought had only just occurred, and was in its way appalling.

As Elyot, Jasper Britten veers between the flippancy he praises so highly, an almost despairing love for Amanda, and thunderous rage. Between the two is a kind of sexual chemistry almost never seen onstage, to the extent that in their moments of quiet tenderness I began to scribble bashfully in my notebook, so as to avert my eyes.

The abandoned second spouses Sybil and Victor are played with broader comedy by Lucy Briggs-Owen and Rufus Wright, with Briggs-Owen in particular having a gift for physical comedy, ably assisted by eyes like a pair of blue saucers. Lucy Bailey’s direction is typically sensitive, with moments of pensive stillness punctuating the comedy, and the set design is profoundly evocative: on seeing that Paris loft, all rumpled bedspreads, satin pyjamas, and brandy by candlelight, there were audible sighs of wistful pleasure from those of us leading altogether more respectable lives.

In creating Amanda and Elyot, Coward showed himself to be acutely conscious of that most inconvenient of facts: that what attracts us to each other most passionately is very often most infuriating. If there is a failing in the play it is that having uncovered and dissected this, he’s not quite sure what to do with it: he endeavours to maintain his basic honesty in his dealings with the lovers, but as in life there are no easy answers: farce ensues, including moments of decidedly uncomfortable violence.

That Coward is a by-word for theatrical froth is, I suspect, the fault not of the dramatist himself, but of cursory readings and changing fashions. Certainly his determination to ‘live a first-class life’ overspills into his drama, which will not permit anything less than exquisitely turned ankles in ivory frocks, and dapper gentlemen with a weary turn of phrase. But he also laid bare the fear and hollowness that lay behind all that bright display – his was a generation baffled and torn ragged by a pointless war, and left adrift by the loss of God; and his characters are often grasping desperately for some solidity and meaning.

Arch sophisticate he may have been, but he possessed the most important quality for a writer, which is to notice more keenly and kindly than the rest of us the funny, sad and puzzling vagaries of human behaviour. This production chastens nearly though not quite as much as it entertains.

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