Private Lives

Noël Coward
London Classic Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Olivia Beardsley as Sibyl, Gareth Bennett-Ryan as Elyot, Helen Keeley as Amanda, Paul Sandys as Victor Credit: Sheila Burnett

Private Lives, written in only three days, is one of Coward’s most enduring and best loved comedies, but with it’s stylised clipped speech and the brittle artificiality of the characters it would be so easy to turn into a parody of the original.

Happily, Michael Cabot has kept closely to the comedic spirit of the play, keeping to the text but giving the characters a more modern speech pattern and touching only lightly on the inherent cruelty of the two dominant characters who couldn’t live together yet cannot live apart. The chemistry between all four well-cast performers works like a charm.

Elyot and Amanda, divorced some time ago, are now honeymooning with their respective spouses in a hotel in Deauville where their balconies, overlooking the ocean, are only separated by a row of standard roses. It is with horror that they discover each other in the same situation but it is obvious that they are totally unsuited to their new partners.

Elyot’s wife Sybil is nervously sycophantic, unable to talk about anything other than her husband’s first wife, while he, languidly smoking a cigarette, seems to dismiss her as an irritation he could do without. In a reverse mirror image on the next balcony, Amanda is the dominant one in this relationship with a well-meaning Victor anxious to please but also concerned about her feelings for her previous husband. It takes only a couple of cocktails before Amanda and Elyot realise their mistake and cowardly sneak off to Amanda’s Parisian apartment.

Frankie Bradshaw has designed two beautiful sets for the two venues in this play. The balconies with white louvred doors show just enough of the shadowy depths to imagine the rooms beyond, while the Parisian apartment is stylishly sophisticated elegance with a large record player and a very well-stocked drinks trolley. It’s not long however before the two lovers find themselves in the same chaotic and volatile situation which caused them to divorce in the first place and crockery begins to fly.

Helen Keeley’s Amanda exudes arrogant sophistication as she strolls around in her silk pyjamas while Gareth Bennett-Ryan, lounging on the sofa as Elyot, is equally and elegantly arrogant but with a seriously misogynistic streak. His comment, “it doesn’t suit a woman to be promiscuous,” adding that it’s all right for a man, drew a howl of protest from the audience who, strangely, seemed to overlook, “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs!”

In the hands of Olivia Beardsley and Paul Sandys, Sibyl and Victor come into their own in act two, showing that they are not the dull, boringly traditionalists as seen at first. Amanda’s “Heaven preserve me from nice women” is parried caustically by Sibyl’s “your reputation ought to do that!”

One particularly enjoyable scene to watch is the expressions of glee and delight on the faces of Amanda and Elyot as they eat their croissants and watch their counterparts engaging in similar altercations to their own. A delightfully comic conclusion to a very entertaining production.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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