“A gloriously entertaining evening, opulently designed by Anthony Ward, and offering two hours of comic bliss.”
It’s hard to believe that Private Lives (1930) is even older than the Rolling Stones. For while Mick and Keef now seem like a geriatric parody of their former selves this is a comedy that in Jonathan Kent’s superb production feels forever young, fresh and delightful.
It’s not always like that of course. In lesser productions Coward’s epigrammatic one-liners can seem tired and mannered, and if there is no coup-de-foudre between the actors playing Elyot and Amanda the play can seem a self-regarding bore.
Here however the chemistry proves spectacularly combustible. I didn’t think I would ever see a sexier Private Lives than the one starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan more than a dozen years ago but the sense of unbuttoned intimacy and desire between Anna Chancellor’s Amanda and Toby Stephens’s Elyot proves even stronger. As Chancellor put it in a Telegraph interview “you think these two must really be at it.”
You sense this from the opening scene when the divorced couple meet on their adjoining balconies at the Deauville hotel where each is spending the first night of their honeymoon with new partners.
Amanda asks Elyot for a cigarette. Instead of simply offering her his cigarette case as Coward’s stage direction suggests, he removes the cigarette from his own mouth and gives it to Amanda before lighting a fresh one for himself. You sense at once that this is a couple who know each other through and through and have enjoyed many a post-coital gasper together.
But throughout the performances feel fresh-minted. There is a real edge of danger about Stephens’s vulpine Elyot. When he turns on his clingy and insipid new bride Sibyl and hisses “I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe” the stinging venom of his delivery is genuinely shocking. This is a brute who isn’t joking when he announces that “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”.
Anna Chancellor meanwhile plays Amanda with a sensual, slightly raddled glamour, her wit and bohemian extravagance often seeming like a defence mechanism against the knowledge that she is growing old. For the prospect of age and death haunts the play and its giddy wit is like a raspberry of defiance blown at the grim reaper. Elyot is only half joking when he remarks to Amanda: “Kiss me darling, before your body rots and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets.”
The great central act in which post-coital languor gradually gives way first to irritation, then anger and finally to no-holds-barred domestic violence is staged with virtuosic panache and invention by Kent, and brilliantly played by the two leads. It will be a long time before I forget the sight of Chancellor dancing to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to rile her lover into physically incontinent fury.
Coward described the couple’s drearily conventional new spouses, Victor and Sibyl, as little more than ninepins, set up to be knocked down, but Anthony Calf and Anna-Louise Plowman play them with distinction, the one hilariously pompous, the other a ghastly moaning Minnie.
This is a gloriously entertaining evening, opulently designed by Anthony Ward, and offering two hours of comic bliss.
Author: Charles Spencer
“Jonathan Kent's rendition of Coward's masterpiece is the best in a decade.”
West End transfers from Chichester have become practically a matter of course during Jonathan Church's remarkably rich and fertile regime there and the latest production to make the leap from Sussex to Shaftesbury Avenue is this dazzling, razor-sharp revival of Private Lives which began life at the Minerva studio last September.
Seeing Jonathan Kent's production for a second time confirms me in the view that this is the best account of Coward's masterpiece since Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan struck sparks off each other in the West End more than a decade ago.
The 'secret' of its success, as they say, is plain to see in the almost indecently natural and combustible chemistry between Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor as divorcees Elyot and Amanda.
From the moment they lay startled eyes on one another on the adjoining balconies of the Riviera hotel where they are both honeymooning with new spouses, the atmosphere crackles with sexual electricity. The last word in “jagged sophistication” as she stretches languorous white limbs in her dark emerald evening gown, Chancellor's Amanda is the sleek, imperious big cat in glaring contrast to Anna-Louise Plowman's whiningly kittenish Sibyl so it's no wonder that when the latter surfaces in a girly-pink marabou-feathered outfit, Stephens's captivatingly public schoolboyish and bad-tempered Elyot buries his face in his hands and lets out an involuntary groan of despair.
Championing bohemian flightiness over bourgeois responsibility, the play is also an acute study of the kind of egoisme a deux where two demanding, highly strung people find it impossible to live either together or apart. As they flounce around the art deco Parisian love nest in their dressing gowns, Chancellor and Stephens brilliantly chart the couple's volatile mood-swings between smoochy intimacy and fiercely irritated sexual jealousy, and between archly parodic self-dramatising and murderous, punch-throwing rage.
You'd be tempted, at moments, to describe it as Strindberg-with-slapstick, but the actors also bring a warmth and likeability to the shenanigans which here include Chancellor's absurd, retaliatory dance to a record of The Rite of Spring and Stephens' distraught howl into cushion during a negotiated two minutes of silence.
These qualities persist into the deliciously played final act where, amidst the debris of the morning after, Chancellor's Amanda assumes a hilariously infuriating manner of bright social graciousness as she dispenses coffee to the people whose lives have been ruined and Anthony Calf's splendidly stuffy and unimaginative Victor jumps at the word “brioche” as though he's thinks it might be a blasphemy against the British Empire. Bliss; go.
Author: Paul Taylor
“Deliciously fresh revival”
In the best musical category at Sunday’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards, a production from Chichester Festival Theatre, Sweeney Todd, beat another production from Chichester Festival Theatre, Singin’ in the Rain, to the prize.
This gloriously resurgent venue is fast becoming the go-to place for slick musical revivals and this new look at the Cole Porter showbiz-themed dazzler Kiss Me, Kate is the latest sassy offering. Having started on the south coast in the summer, it now sizzles into town.
Trevor Nunn, presiding over his third major opening in two months, certainly knows his way around a classic musical, having made them a central feature of his tenure at the National Theatre.
He gives us a lengthy but slick show with high production values, although at the preview performance I saw there were some notable dips in energy levels, a niggling problem that also afflicts his other current West End piece, A Chorus of Disapproval.
Still, it’s too darn hot inside Ford’s Theatre, Baltimore, in June 1948 to quibble overmuch, as warring divorcees Lilli Vanessi (Hannah Waddingham) and Fred Graham (Alex Bourne) open in a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Life and art get themselves in one almighty tangle, not helped by the arrival of two heavies in search of gambling debts.
If the backstage/onstage antics aren’t quite as sharp as in the sublime Noises Off, there’s certainly much fun to be had in watching the feisty Waddingham turn Lilli ever more shrewish. Sam and Bella Spewack’s book never quite convinces me that Lilli and Fred are destined for each other, but Stephen Mear’s high-octane choreography, showcased in the set-piece for Too Darn Hot, leaves no room for brooding.
Holly Dale Spencer as ditzy nightclub singer Lois excels in my favourite hymn to matrimonial equivocation, Always True To You In My Fashion. As the lovable hoodlums with a taste for the greasepaint, David Burt and Clive Rowe provide the evening’s showstopper with the delightful Brush up Your Shakespeare, milking two deserved encores. Highly kissable.
Too often directors merely skim across the polished surface of Noel Coward’s brilliant portrait of a marriage, Private Lives. Jonathan Kent’s fast, funny and fabulously fresh revival has all the superficial gorgeousness you could wish for – even the wall-paper on the set of a Paris apartment is gold. But it also gets deep beneath the skin of a couple who can’t live with or without one another.
Toby Stephens’s Elyot is evidently bored rigid by his new wife, the conventional, feminine Sibyl, and their honeymoon has barely begun.
His first wife Amanda (Anna Chancellor) just happens to be honeymooning in the adjoining hotel suite, and is equally unexcited by her new husband Victor. When he tries to kiss her, she grimaces and turns her face away.
But then Elyot and Amanda set eyes on one another. They exchange just a word or two – ‘How was it?’ ‘The world?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh, highly enjoyable’ – and realise that there is no point being ‘jagged with sophistication’ unless you have a partner witty enough to appreciate it and reciprocate it, and whom you fancy rotten.
Which this pair so obviously do. Their bickering is almost a form of foreplay: red-hot exchanges combust into blistering wrestling matches followed by scorching make ups.
There’s nothing ladylike or even respectable about Chancellor’s Amanda.
Feisty and fiery, she’s not going to be any man’s conventional little woman. Similarly, nothing is conventional or gentlemanly about Stephens’s Elyot: so often played as a cold-blooded lounge lizard, here he has a genuine sense of humour as well as mischief.
When he mimics Amanda, it’s with amused affection. Together they pull off the near-impossible and make Coward’s stylised repartee new-minted, meant rather than learnt. Their comic timing is miraculous.
The jilted new spouses are largely thankless roles: Coward said they were ‘merely nine-pins to be knocked down’. But Antony Calf’s stolid Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman’s wan Sibyl, each a study in buttoned-up conventionality, provide the perfect foils for two of the best and sexiest performances of the year.
Author: Georgina Brown
“Giddily enjoyable production”
Jonathan Kent’s critically acclaimed revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives
Private Lives tells the story of Elyot and Amanda, a rich and glamorous divorced couple whose love is unexpectedly rekindled when they take adjoining suites of a Riviera hotel while honeymooning with their new spouses.
Bruno Wang was the production partner of Jonathan Kent’s critically acclaimed revival of Noel Coward’s comedy of manners Private Lives, featuring Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens. Anna Chancellor received a Laurence Olivier Best Actress nomination for her performance. Co-incidentally the original production in 1930 starred Laurence Olivier as well as Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward himself.