The Nigel Havers Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford
As Nigel Havers has not only produced but also stars in Private Lives, there is the niggling worry the play might turn into a vanity project. Actually, it is such a success, one departs the theatre really looking forward to the next production from The Nigel Havers Theatre Company.
The marriage between Amanda (Patricia Hodge) and Elyot (Nigel Havers) was so passionate, the relationship descended into jealously and even violence before an inevitable divorce. The couple remarry, Elyot to the cheerful if somewhat vapid Sibyl (Natalie Walter) and Amanda to the resolutely decent if plank-like Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart). But when they accidentally meet up on their honeymoons, Amanda and Elyot discover the passion and associated problems are still smouldering awaiting only a spark to reignite.
The dominant characteristic of the production is confidence; all involved are determined not to spoil a classic play. Considering Private Lives features some of the most famously ‘witty’ dialogue in theatre, director Christopher Luscombe achieves sublimely funny scenes in silence. Patricia Hodge’s wordless reaction upon spotting her former spouse and crafty way of revealing her unexpected presence is priceless. Amanda and Elyot carefully killing time during a silent truce imposed to avoid an argument or watching, as if at tennis match, as Sibyl and Victor surrender to annoyance are impeccable staged.
Luscombe makes the play more palatable for a contemporary audience by mitigating the impression Elyot is a bully and Amanda a victim of domestic abuse. He allows actions to speak louder than words, showing Amanda physically striking back but, even so, tinkering with the script—omitting the opinion women like gongs should be struck regularly—will offend purists and seems unnecessary. After all, Noël Coward was willing to risk offending the morals of the 1930s by showing a couple eloping from their spouses so perhaps the producers could dare offer a less sympathetic interpretation of Elyot.
Considering Elyot is a larger-than-life and egoistical character, Nigel Havers takes a surprisingly down-to-earth approach, not hiding his childish tantrums and petty jealousies. Patricia Hodge is more mature in the sense Amanda feels, if not guilt for her actions, at least an awareness they have consequences for other people. The couple give the impression they have concluded life is far too ludicrous to be taken seriously and developed a resigned attitude that frivolity is the only suitable response.
Most importantly, there is tremendous chemistry between Havers and Hodge with them acting their age and bringing a wistful sense of regret for lost opportunities and the realistic acceptance they might be a bit too old for an afternoon tryst but can still share a song around the piano. Excerpts from Coward’s classic songbook are sung in an understated, rather than joking, manner, which adds to the mature atmosphere of gentle regret and faded sophistication.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Natalie Walter are excellent comic support, their exaggerated outrage representing the opinions of conventional society. Bruce-Lockhart is close to a satire on the classic interpretation of how a man ought to behave. He has a dog-like devotion to Amanda and is determined to defend her honour but incapable of appreciating she is more than capable of looking after herself. Natalie Walter daringly pushes Sibyl to the point where her innocent naivety starts to become comically annoying.
The only part of the admirably restrained production which is knowingly over the top is Simon Higlett’s lavish set. Amanda’s Parisian flat is an art deco masterpiece with massive decorative columns and a piano.
Although purists might not appreciate the trimming of the text, it is impossible to resist the charm of this production of Private Lives.
Reviewer: David Cunningham