Private Lives

Noël Coward
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring

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If Noel Coward is to be believed – and who am I to doubt his word? – he tossed off this play in about four days in 1930 while on tour in the Far East and while convalescing after a bout of influenza. Well, it gave him something to do – and there’s no denying he had a way with words, even when suffering.

Five years after an acrimonious divorce the play’s main characters, Amanda and Elyot, are on honeymoon with their new partners. The scene is set in a hotel in Deauville where twin balconies overlook the sea. The surroundings are idyllic – moon shining on the water and the lights of a yacht at anchor in the bay adding their own reflection, while soft music drifts up from below – an evening for romance. Sybil Chase, in the first flush of starry-eyed love is declaring her undying devotion to her new husband, Elyot, but cannot help herself constantly referring to his previous wife and how ‘hateful’ she must have been. When they go in to prepare for dinner, another couple emerge onto the adjoining balcony. In a mirror image of the first two, eternal love is promised, this time by new husband Victor, who is also scathing about Amanda’s previous spouse, and is looking for comparisons, hopefully in his favour.

One wonders how such strong and passionate characters as Amanda and Elyot have ended up with two such boring partners. This can only be as an antidote to their previous turbulent marriage, and the story does not have to be believable – it is Coward’s exceptionally witty and amusing dialogue which is vital to the play or, as Coward described it, “a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and to provide contrast”. He may well have been slightly dismissive of his own work, but I can’t believe he meant it – not Coward!

Of course Amanda and Elyot discover their lost love, abandon their new partners, and sneak off together to a handy and opulent apartment in Paris which just happens to be vacant ..perfectly possible in Coward’s world, I’m sure, although sadly not in mine.

Here, relaxing in their pyjamas, they indulge in cosy cuddles on the sofa and then a rather exaggerated tango which degenerates into a very physical (and extremely well choreographed) fight – when they rediscover why they divorced in the first place.

Written for himself and Gertrude Lawrence to play the two main characters, Coward was aware that the secondary couple must be played by expert experienced actors if it was to succeed, and while Belinda Lang and Julian Wadham give their all in superbly volatile and passionate performances, enunciating the quick-fire sharp and witty dialogue with aplomb, Sybil and Victor cannot be dismissed. Mary Stockley and Robert Portal may have begun as either stiffly correct or overdramatic as the parts demanded, but they really come into their own when scandalised by the shenanigans of their new spouses and – could it be that they will end up with just as turbulent a relationship?

David Haig exhibits a firm directional control, using the silences as carefully as the dialogue, and this Haig-Lang production - their second venture after the very successful but dissimilar My Boy Jack - slips down like a delightfully delicious dessert, with all the ingredients meticulously weighed and measured to create a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying whole, and with enough bite and acerbic wit to add spice. Highly recommended!

This review was first published in Theatreworld Internet Magazine.

Sheila also interviewed Belinda Lang

Reviewer: Sheila Connor