From the moment you hear Mars: The Bringer of War from Holst's Planets Suite, you know this is going to be a production with a difference. But as soon as you prepare yourself for an unexpected assault on your senses, you hear the sort of music normally associated with the 1920s when this classic is set.
Confused? It soon becomes apparent that this is Coward for the 21st century. It's worlds apart from another Coward offering, Blithe Spirit, presented by the Playhouse only five months ago. Gone are the clipped voices, cravats and cigarette holders. Instead there's the sound of heavy breathing, intimate kissing and you're in little doubt as to what would happen if the plot didn't get in the way. After all, the two couples in this play are on their honeymoons.
Reckoned to be Coward's most enduring play, Private Lives centres on divorcees Amanda and Elyot who are in France with their new spouses. Not only do the two couples find themselves in the same hotel on their wedding night - they're in adjoining suites.
Amanda and Elyot realise they've made a mistake and have married again on the rebound. But before the end they each the conclusion that they can't live with each other, as well as not being able to live without each other.
Peter Harding is competent as Elyot although there are times when he doesn't seem nasty enough to resort to violence, which he did when he was married to Amanda. He also has a tendency to drop his voice at the end of sentences, especially in more tender moments.
Anna Keaveney (Amanda) is a fine actress and a real match for Elyot. They are totally believable as the warring couple who love and hate each other in equal measure.
However, it's stretching the imagination to believe that Victor (Toby Sawyer) would fall madly in love with Amanda. There's too much of an age gap and he is too upper class to be attracted to Amanda who comes over as less sophisticated and intellectually on a lower level.
Here's another problem with director David Freeman's putting a modern emphasis on the production: the language is very much of Coward's time. It's ridiculous for the actors to hurl insults such as "slattern", "fishwife" and "cad" at one another. And in these politically correct times it's even worse to hear lines such as "Women should be struck regularly, like gongs" taken out of their original context.
The action earns plenty of laughs, although Coward's beautifully crafted dark humour is lost somewhere along the way.
I was left with the same feeling that you sometimes get watching a Shakespeare play transformed into a different age or setting: it's difficult to improve on a masterpiece, so don't even bother to attempt it.
This production of Private Lives is brought to a huge climax, the stage dramatically tipping up as this time Victor and posh totty Sybil, seductively played by Phillipa Peak, have a massive argument. They clamber about and hang on as though an earthquake has turned their lives upside down. Amanda and Elyot actually sit in the audience to watch while Mars: The Bringer of War thunders from the speakers again.
This production will make a definite impression on you - you'll either love it or loathe it. At the end all I could do was contemplate how Freeman had stood Private Lives on its head and wonder: why?
"Private Lives" runs until April 3rd
Reviewer: Steve Orme