Neil Dowden in the West End
19 April 2023
Noël Coward’s masterly comedy of manners Private Lives has rarely been off stage since it premiered in 1930 with a cast including Coward himself, regular collaborator Gertrude Lawrence, and a yet-to-be famous Laurence Olivier. While brimful of laugh-out-loud one-liners and biting wit, its portrayal of the destructive relationship between attractive but self-centred, decadent protagonists seems to signal the end of the hedonistic Jazz Age. More recent stagings have tended to accentuate the darker aspects of the play. Michael Longhurst’s new visceral production at the Donmar Warehouse – starring Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling – certainly does this by not shirking the violence into which the passionate lovers descend. As one of them says, it is “horribly funny”.
Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The set-up is brilliantly devised. Five years after getting divorced, Elyot and Amanda are on honeymoon with their respective new spouses Sibyl and Victor in the fashionable Atlantic seaside resort of Deauville when they re-encounter each other on the adjoining balconies of their hotel rooms. Neither is fully satisfied with their current partners, and feeling the flames of their old passion re-igniting, they “elope” to Amanda’s flat in Paris. But by the time the other two find them there and confront them with their betrayal, Elyot and Amanda’s amorous attraction has once more turned to verbal and physical fighting . . . plus ça change.
This production makes clear Coward’s suggestion that Elyot and Amanda have unfinished business even before they meet again in Deauville, in the pointed way they react to Sibyl and Victor’s questions and comments on their first marriage. There is a certain emotional distance – or hollowness – in their manner that suggests detachment from their rather insipid new partners as if they are still harking back to the intensity of their former relationship, however bitterly it may have ended. And though Elyot and Amanda both try to persuade their spouses that they must leave straightaway once they know the other is there too, we know from their newly energized behaviour that their grand amour is taking them over again like an addiction.
Sargon Yelda as Victor.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
This love is more compulsive than romantic. We see the dined, boozed-up Elyot and Amanda in Paris in post-coital relaxed mood, smoking, laughing, dancing to jazz . . . but we know this sensual détente is not going to last. Their code word “Solomon Isaacs” (or “Sollocks” for short) to allow cooling off before any arguments can get out of hand only works temporarily. Before long – inevitably – they are at each other’s throats, as she breaks a record over his head and he responds by slapping her face, with objects being hurled around the apartment. Here, the aggro carries the shock of the real. They are patently a couple who can’t live with or without each other. But in a twist, Coward suggests a battle of the sexes may be the norm.
Longhurst may play down the glamorous escapism of Private Lives in favour of disturbing realism, but this show still comes across as stylish entertainment with an ambivalent undercurrent. Hildegard Bechtler’s set features elevated hotel balconies in the first act and (once dustsheets have been removed) afterwards on stage an elegant apartment containing chaise longues which is trashed by the close of play. A violinist and cellist (Faoileann Cunningham and Harry Napier) provide not only live musical background including Elyot and Amanda’s “tune” but at the start of the second half a brief meta-performance of duelling disharmony.
The cast is first-rate. In a very funny performance, Stephen Mangan strongly conveys Elyot’s jaundiced humour and bohemian play-acting, a man who isn’t bound to conventional morality but lacks commitment to anything else. There is convincing chemistry between him and Rachael Stirling’s amusingly theatrical, provocative, and wilful Amanda who wants to keep the party going so as not to have to confront awkward choices. Laura Carmichael also does well as the irritatingly clinging and manipulative Sibyl, with Sargon Velda as the stiffly moralizing Victor who becomes less than gentlemanly by the end.