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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

Private Lives Archive 

For the archive we file our reviews of several productions of Noel Coward's Private Lives together. Scroll down for the one you want, compare, or browse.


Private Lives
Albery Theatre Winter 2001-2002

Noel Coward's comedy is one of the best ever written, with wall-to-wall wit, the master's signature high stylishness, just enough sentiment to keep it from floating away, and two starring roles that are perfect vehicles for the right actors (and since only actors who are perfect for the roles ever attempt the play, the performances are always a delight). And yet this revival, directed by Howard Davies and starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, never quite takes off.

Don't get me wrong. There is no such thing as a bad Private Lives. This production does many things well, and a couple of things better than I've ever seen before. But it lacks the snap, the unrelenting crispness, the sense of perfect artifice that we expect from the play. The jokes aren't punched enough, the characters aren't defined enough, the feeling of surrendering to confident perfection isn't there. And the reasons seem to be conscious directorial decisions.

As I said, only actors perfect for the two key roles ever attempt them, and Alan Rickman's suave, drawling archness would be ideal for the super-sophisticated Elyot. But Rickman has oddly chosen (or been directed) to not be Rickman, to play down all his usual vocal and attitude mannerisms and give an almost anonymous performance for much of the time, negating the whole point of casting him in the first place. Lindsay Duncan is somewhat better as Amanda, mixing dry delivery of the epigrams with a constant sharpness in the eyes that hints at both intellect and emotion within.

(A belated plot summary: Elyot and Amanda, members of the very idle and very rich class, are a divorced couple who have each remarried, and the two new couples have accidentally picked the same hotel for their honeymoons. The minute they spot each other from adjoining terraces, the rest of the play is inevitable: they run off together to relive both the passions and the bickering of the first time around, to our comic delight.)

To both actors' credit, they do give this revival a quality most others neglect. Beneath all the wit, Coward was writing about people so committed to their brittle and trivial masks ("You mustn't be serious, my dear one," says Elyot at one point. "It's just what they want.") that they have real difficulty facing and expressing actual emotions when they feel them. I have seen far sharper Private Lives, and far funnier, but I have never seen one in which it was clearer how very much in love Amanda and Elyot are, and how ill-equipped they are to handle that experience. The point in Act One in which they admit that they're still in love with each other is as moving and real as anything you will see in any non-comedy in London today, and there are similar beautifully true moments later.

Many successful versions of Private Lives don't do justice to that serious element. But the play can be successful without it, and it can't really be successful when Coward's epigrams are too often swallowed or ineffectively thrown away, and that happens far too often in this - as a result - far too slack and lifeless production. Even in its first week, this has the feel of a cast at the end of a long and tiring provincial tour.

Part of the fun of the play always lies in the sets and costumes, and the stylish look of the idle rich at play. But Tim Hatley's sets, art deco hotel balconies that look like the bridge of a battleship and a Paris apartment draped in more red velvet than a Victorian brothel, are a little too proud of themselves, and contribute nothing - all the blocking in the apartment set is very clumsy. And something has been done to Alan Rickman's hair that makes him look like a middle-aged bank clerk in a bad toupee.

Gerald Berkowitz


Private Lives
Hampstead Theatre 2009

In the dear dead days beyond recall, when there were weekly reps and resident repertory companies, actors hired for a full season would have to be shoehorned into each new play, even if they were not quite right for the roles.

The result was always just a little bit off, though if the play was strong enough it could usually survive and perhaps even take on unexpected overtones.

There is a bit of that feeling about this revival of Private Lives. Noel Coward's comedy - the one about the formerly married couple who meet again and are instantly in love again despite being unable to escape constant bickering - is as nearly perfect and foolproof as a comedy can be, and it succeeds even though you have the constant feeling that neither of its central roles is ideally cast.

In a way Jasper Britton and Claire Price are too strong as actors, in ways that don't quite fit the play. They each bring a solid realism and depth to the characters that sits uneasily with the brittle wit and artifice of Coward's comedy. As a result you can't just sit back and let the clever repartee wash over you.

On one level you are too often aware of the actors working very hard at bridging the gap between what they bring to the play and what the play wants. On another, they can't help adding depths and colours to characters we are used to seeing as all gloss and surface.

Of course that last is not entirely bad. There are indeed hints of deeper feelings and psychology in Coward's portrait of a pair of Beautiful People who work at being shallow just because their feelings scare them so. And making us aware of this, as director Lucy Bailey's production does, may even be worth the sacrifice of some of the play's easy, glossy comedy.

Certainly Jasper Britton lets us sense from the opening moments that there is a core of serious thought to his Elyot, an awareness of ageing and mortality and the possibilities of unhappiness that makes him grasp tightly to every joy. And Claire Price makes Amanda a bundle of raw nerves from the start, as if she enters the play already nearly exhausted from the effort of being elegantly carefree.

The sense of real, feeling people behind the sophisticated veneer unquestionably enriches the play. The problem is that it inevitably interferes with the easy banter, and the challenge for a director who chooses this path is hitting the right balance, of not sacrificing too much comedy to the human drama.

And this production does sometimes go too far. Jasper Britton's Elyot is a little too almost-glum in the opening scene, the slapstick fighting and bickering between the couple comes a little too close to the bone, and a late moment in which Amanda confesses to a feeling of unworthiness and self-hatred, meant to be a brief aberrant lapse, plays as too naked an exposure of a play-threatening reality.

Like designer Katrina Lindsay's decision to replace the usually elegant art deco apartment of the last act with a bohemian Parisian garret, confounding our expectations about this classic comedy can be both illuminating and disconcerting.

The play, as I said, is so very, very strong that it could survive even greater dislocations than we have here. But, like those rep company productions of yesteryear, you always have the awareness that what you are seeing is not quite as it's meant to be.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Private Lives
Vaudeville Theatre 2010

What may well be one of the most perfect comedies ever written is here revived in a production that starts slowly but is at its best as wonderful as you could possibly ask for.

Reminder: a divorced couple each remarry and unluckily choose the same hotel for their new honeymoons. You could probably write the rest yourself, though it almost certainly wouldn't be as witty, stylish and delightful as the bauble Noel Coward created as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence (with the young Laurence Olivier as the other man).

Here the star-crossed couple are played by Matthew Macfadyen and Kim Cattrall, both perhaps better known from television, but both with solid theatrical credentials.

Macfadyen at first seems a bit too stiff and stolid as Elyot, but he eventually relaxes into the role, finding just the right blend of languid frivolity and underlying depths of feeling. And Cattrall brings a kittenish quality to Amanda that may at first startle those expecting more understated elegance and glamour, but that sexiness soon wins you over, adding new and enriching colours to the character.

So those who expect this play to be just a matter of oh-so-beautiful people posing oh-so-elegantly while spouting oh-so-witty epigrams may be a bit disconcerted, and for that reason the first act, which is usually the brightest and most scintillating, may not quite catch fire.

But it is the second act, too often played as just filler on the way to the climax, that is this production's high point. (In keeping with modern practice, Acts Two and Three are run together, with only a single interval after Act One.)

Here is where we get to see Amanda and Elyot together as they rediscover not only their irresistible love for each other but also their irresistible impulses to bicker and fight over anything and everything. And director Richard Eyre and his two stars bring out all the farce, all the deeper character comedy and all the subtle hints of sadness in the situation, making the central scene of the play sparkle as I've never seen it before.

For many, this is a play of wit and elegance, and it has almost as many iconic lines as you'll find in Wilde or Shakespeare. But it is also a play about a couple who choose to be flippant and trivial because they know that seriousness hurts too much - and to find and communicate that level without breaking the fragile comic tone is a major accomplishment for director and actors.

The two other characters (there's also a maid) have too often been lifeless straight men, but Lisa Dillon makes Sybil (as in 'Don't quibble, Sybil' - surely a line that Coward had to pause and giggle at when he wrote it) simultaneously adorable and an utter pain in the neck and candidate for justifiable homicide, while Simon Paisley Day finds in Victor a man repeatedly and hilariously flummoxed by people who just won't play by the received codes of behaviour.

Two relatively minor complaints, one with designer Rob Howell, who makes Amanda and Elyot's hideaway truly bizarre looking (though he does set up a good sight gag involving a fishbowl), and one with director Eyre, who mis-stages and mis-choreographs the very final sequence, so that its ironies and surprises don't register as strongly as they should.

Gerald Berkowitz

Private Lives
Gielgud Theatre 2013

A delightful bonbon for a summer evening, Noel Coward's truly perfect comedy is given as stylish and entertaining a production as you could wish for in this transfer from Chichester. I can think of no possible argument that could be made against rushing out to buy a ticket. 

This is the one about the divorced couple who have each remarried and unluckily taken their honeymoons in adjoining suites at the same hotel. 

You could probably write the rest of the play yourself though it would most certainly not be as clever as Coward's version, in which virtually every line is a witty epigram, from 'Don't quibble, Sibyl' to the subtext-loaded comment on Norfolk's topography. 

Of course Elyot and Amanda are going to abscond together, and of course their new love is not going to run any more smoothly than it did the first time around. 

But and there's no 'of course' here Coward and they are going to convince us that all the squabbling and all the angst are just proof that they're made for each other as they take their place alongside Shakespeare's Benedick and Beatrice in the pantheon of imperfect perfect couples. 

What really raises Private Lives above a dozen TV sitcoms about mismatched couples is that, his carefully self-created reputation to the contrary, Noel Coward is not just all brittle surface. 

Like his contemporary Terrence Rattigan, Coward's real subject was the British national difficulty in expressing or even feeling real emotion. Rattigan thought this tragic, but Coward lets us see that, while Elyot and Amanda joke about their love for each other because the emotion scares them, being able to joke gives them a bond that lets them experience the emotion more fully than those who try to pay it serious lip service.

Elyot and Amanda get each other, and spotting that enables us to laugh heartily at the serious world with them. 

Director Jonathan Kent and his dream cast find all the jokes, all the opportunities for artful pauses and arched eyebrows, and all the quiet reminders that there is a reality beneath this artifice and real emotions beneath the wit. 

Toby Stephens, who has repeatedly impressed in serious roles, here shows himself an able farceur, making everything he says and does look as effortless as it is delightful. But he also shows us shades of Elyot many others have missed. 

From almost his first line it is clear that, perhaps without realising it, he is already bored with his new bride Sibyl, his jokes attempting to distract himself from the awareness. 

Anna Chancellor's comic skill is also a revelation, her Amanda always 'on', always aware of the impression she gives, whether posing languidly or dryly demolishing someone with a zinger. 

But she too lets us see more to Amanda than that, drawing our sympathy in her first scene as we realise that again without her fully knowing it she has already given up on Victor and is resigning herself to a lifetime of amusing herself with jokes that go well over his head.

It is because that quieter, slightly sad side of both has been established so smoothly from the start that we wish the best for Elyot and Amanda, and remain convinced of their love and their made-for-each-other-ness through the comic ups and downs that follow. 

In the sometimes thankless roles of the new spouses, both Anthony Calf and Anna-Louise Plowman serve as perfect foils, he the personification of British honour and brainless rectitude, she a Dresden doll with a surprisingly sharp tongue. 

There are few plays that can almost guarantee that you will laugh at just about every single line. This one can, and this production and these actors capture all its glories.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Reviews - Private Lives  - London Theatres 2001-2013

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