Private Lives

Noël Coward
Bruce James Productions
Theatre Royal, Winchester, and touring
(2007)

Publicity image

“Through style,” wrote Michel Saint-Denis, “we can approach the past in its richest vein.” A reminder there surely, to all of us who would direct, perform, or simply enjoy the performance of an enduring classic work.

Such as Noël Coward’s Private Lives, revived at Winchester Theatre Royal in a production directed by Neil Collins which sadly fails the Saint-Denis test at the first hurdle.

Full marks to the players for a gallant attempt to capture the Master’s spirit without revealing much, if any, of his craft. Lynden Edwards, as a sturdy rather than stylish Elyot, fails to reveal anything of the character which Coward famously devised, enlarged and performed in his own image. It may be thought passé nowadays to attempt a portrayal of Coward as Coward – yet how else can one approach this formiable matinee idol?

Yet while the challenge of Coward is still vividly remembered through the archives and a host of afternoon radio imitations, much less is now recalled of Gertrude Lawrence, the original Amanda, who was herself a better actor than Coward and certainly a finer stage artist with all the charisma that went with the star for whom the leading role in The King and I was expressly created.

Sinead O’Keeffe finds moments when she almost comes to terms with this doyen of the theatrical stage. Alas, one suspects that both O’Keeffe and Edwards are victims of the televisual age from which their view of a truly theatrical performance is obscured.

In this production, for example, Amanda does not pick up the strains of the “cheap music” from the ensemble downstairs. Thus we do not enjoy Eliot’s sentimental recall, “You always had a sweet voice, Amanda”.

So we must make do with the Duke of Westminster’s yacht, flat Norfolk, The Taj Mahal and such other pearls as remain.

Poppy Roe and Philip Elvy are both engaging as the romantic alternatives, Sybil and Victor, and it is one of the ironies of this modern revival to reflect that, for these two makeweight characters, Coward insisted on the best actor he could find, Adrianne Allen and Lawrence Olivier. What a pity some of his thinking was not applied to the whole approach to this revival.

Settings by Bruce James Productions are workmanlike without pretending to capture the thirties atmosphere of the South of France. There is also an enthusiastic performance by Rebecca Lee Morgan as the maid – although I am reliably informed that her French is dreadful.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole