The Mill at Sonning Theatre
“I fail to see where the humour is in trivial flippancy,” Noël Coward makes humourless Victor say in this play which he wrote for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. He was joking of course but though Private Lives is full of flippancies it’s serious too; beneath the heady mix of high comedy and farce is a reminder of the things that disrupt marital harmony, of the ups and downs in real relationships.
Director Tam Williams places it firmly in the 1930s (when it premièred) with an elegant setting of a hotel terrace by Michael Holt and Natalie Titchner’s stylish costumes, while before the play starts accordionist Celia Cruwys-Finnigan helps create a French atmosphere.
There are only some potted bay trees to mark what belongs to each of the rooms where two couples have just arrived, unknowing that previous partners have chosen to honeymoon at the same place on the same night five years after divorce ended their marriage.
It is inevitable that former partners Eliot Chase (there with new wife Sibyl) and Amanda (now married to Victor Prynne) encounter each other: embarrassing at first but then rekindling old feelings. It isn’t surprising that they try to hide things from their new younger partners before doing a bunk to Paris where the others pursue them.
“Honeymooning is a very overrated amusement,” says Amanda but Coward turns their predicament into very clever comedy. At the press matinée I saw, an audience of older folk who had all had an excellent lunch (it comes as part of the ticket here) weren’t the easiest to play to and the actors were at first a little too fast and a little too forceful to turn amusement into laughter, but then they slowed down just a little and in the second act as the sure-fire comedy gains momentum things really took off.
Darrell Brockis is suave and laid-back as Eliot. New wife Sybil says he is blasé. He calls her “a strawberry-blonde kitten” and clearly it is not for her mind that he has married her. Lydea Perkins gives us a spoiled young woman with a middle-class voice who is still playing a little girl act expecting to get her own way. She is really no match for experienced Amanda whom Eva Jane Willis gives a relaxed confidence that can spark into fiery temper when challenged.
You can’t help but wonder what she saw in her new husband Victor, maybe his youth and ordinariness for though he’ll put his fists up to be conventionally masculine there is a bit of the wimp about him, somehow emphasised by a thin moustache like that Laurence Olivier wore when he created the role.
Though set in the lifestyle of the '30s (and wonderfully free of social media interruptions), Coward’s wit is still sharp-tongued and this play hilariously funny. It is dated but certainly not out of date. I could wish that Tam Williams had given us a little more than we get of the song that Coward wrote for the play but his production has style and is still very funny—even for theatregoers who know what is coming.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton