Private Lives

Noel Coward

Albery

(2001)

Review by Philip Fisher

Howard Davies has done a superb job with his new production of a play that is so familiar, tha, at times, you feel as if you know every line before it is delivered. He is beautifully supported not only by his two stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan as Elyot and Amanda, but also by Adam Godley as “spaniel”, Victor and Emma Fielding as the vacuous Sybil.

This production opens in a set designed by Tim Hatley that, symbolically, looks like a collapsing wedding cake. Into this stroll the two pairs of newly weds. It is clear from the first few sentences that both couples are ill matched in age and character. Davies particularly brings out the parallels between the behaviour of the older pair which is almost exactly mirrored and that of a younger couple who almost behave like twins.

The play really hots up and Rickman and Duncan begin to come into their own when their wife and husband respectively disappear from the balcony and they are left to each other. The sorry tale of their Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton type relationship soon unfolds.

One of the great strengths of this version is in the scenes where nothing is said. The dumb show as Elyot and Amanda realise that the other is honeymooning in the next room is one of the highlights. They also both speak their lines well and bring out not only the humour of Coward’s writing but also the pathos.

This is possibly helped by the contrast between their characters - who have all of the good lines - and the rather wooden Victor and Sybil who, particularly in the first act, have no purpose other than to make their elders shine. This is relatively easy when the elders have so many quotable lines whether about the flatness of Norfolk or the potency of cheap music.

The play slightly loses its dramatic tension in the second act, now set in a very lavish Paris living room decked out in a rich red nicely contrasting with a deep blue sky. They rest comfortably and companionably amongst sofas, cushions and clothes which demonstrate the best of 1930’s life for the very rich.

It is soon apparent that Elyot and Amanda love each other too much and are not capable of sustaining a relationship when they are together. Like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, their love-hate relationship is often seen at its best as they are throwing things at each other and raging around the apartment in their silk pyjamas.

The pace hots up again to great effect in the third act as the deserted youngsters reappear on the scene and are shocked into a realisation of what married life amidst true passion is really like. This is where Godley and Fielding have their chance to bring life to their parts and do so to great effect.

Davies does a good job of allowing the characters to interact and Noel Coward goes to some trouble to ensure that every pairing that can conceivably appear on stage together does so. In this way, he demonstrates that the new marriages have occurred very much on the rebound and cannot reasonably have a future. The question that this begs of the play is how such sophisticates as Elyot and Amanda could ever have married these bright young things, who are by no means bright in at least one sense.

The play comes to a satisfying conclusion that allows more opportunities for a beautifully wolfish Rickman and the wickedly delicious Duncan to ride off into the sunrise.

London has recently been blessed with two very good productions of this play. Juliet Stephenson and Anton Lesser were very good at the National Theatre and now Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan have brought their own characters to the parts at the Albery.

If you saw that first production then you should see this one for the pleasure of watching two more good actors at their best. If you are a fan of Noel Coward then you should not miss Howard Davies’ combination of beautifully timed humour and well played pathos.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.