Written By: Noel Coward
Director: Jonathan Kent
Reviewer: Stephanie Walls
The Public Reviews Rating:
Private Lives is perhaps one of Coward’s most famous and well known plays and audiences have delighted in the timeless story of two lovers who find it difficult to be together but find it impossible to live without each other since its debut in 1930. As one would expect from a Noel Coward piece the text is sparkling and witty; fizzing and popping with one liners and scathing put downs delivered with relish and effortless charm by Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens as our self-absorbed protagonists.
Coward’s self-proclaimed ‘lightest of light comedies’ may be blissfully simplistic in some respects but the success of this particular show hinges entirely on the chemistry between the two leads. Although the piece needs to be approached with style and impeccable comic timing it is truly important that we as an audience can understand why these two hopeless individuals are being drawn back to each other despite their apparent romantic flaws. Chancellor and Stephens are perfectly matched as Elyot and Amanda and we are drawn in by their passionate and flamboyant characterisations. Chancellor is a skilful and precise performer who gives a master class in how to deliver each and every gem she has been given by Coward. Stephens’ Elyot is a grade A cad who swans about the stage with camp delight as he delivers his sardonic wit towards his new bride Sybil and all too soon in Amanda’s direction once more. Paired together on a stage surrounded by Anthony Ward’s elegant design work, Chancellor and Stephens transport us completely into Coward’s delightfully frothy tale of immorality.
There are strong supporting performances from Anna-Louise Plowman as Elyot’s irritatingly needy second wife Sybil and Anthony Calf as Amanda’s downtrodden second husband Victor. Calf gives a startling performance in the final act of the play as we see all Victor’s otherwise repressed feelings bubble to the surface. Plowman’s portrayal of Sybil provides us with a completely unlikeable figure who we are almost glad to see crumble before our eyes. This is a refreshing change to the sickly sweet characterisations of Sybil that we have seen before and it makes Elyot’s alarmingly amusing threats towards her in the first act even more wickedly amusing.
Despite incredibly strong performances from the cast and the sleek finish we’ve come to expect from CFT productions there are moments where the piece seems to lose energy for a few moments, however it quickly recovers and the pace is reclaimed. There are moments of real subtly in Kent’s direction which is often a difficult balance to achieve with a light-hearted piece such as this.
Stephens and Chancellor both give truly believable performances, something which is incredibly important when watching a Coward piece or indeed any piece from the era. The actors have to believe in the words they are speaking and deliver each ‘terribly’ and ‘darling’ with pure conviction. Chancellor’s silky smooth speaking voice is suited perfectly to the text, as is Stephens’ plummy public school boy delivery. Private Lives is a couple of hours of escapism into a time gone by with a story that will forever remain relevant. There is no need to over-think or over analyse this piece and that is what makes it such a joy. It is also remarkably reassuring to sit back and relax knowing this theatrical classic is in the hands of such a skilful company of actors. Thoroughly recommended!
Photo: Ben Delfont
Runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 27th October 2012
Private Lives – Chichester Festival Theatre,