Private Lives

Tue 27th – Sat 31st October 2015

reviews

Robert Penn

at 05:38 on 28th Oct 2015

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“It was shaped very well around the contours of his torso”. As we wait to go in to the auditorium tonight Toby Stephens’ dressing gown in Private Lives (West End production, 2013) is analysed by a discerningly vociferous enthusiast. Tales of Felicity Kendal’s performance in a recent tour of Hay Fever hastily follow. It strikes me as I wait in the playroom’s entrance that , instead of the student body, the audience is dominated by local Noel Coward fans. Fans expecting, from this particular play, something rather raunchy. Private Lives tells the story of two honeymooning newly wed couples who swap partners. Protagonists Amanda and Elyot are ex-lovers who end up falling back in love.

Over the past century Coward plays have become increasingly familiar to the regular British theatre-goer. It, therefore, seems a difficult directorial task to approach them. Centrally, because you have to ask: is there anything new, more inventive, or extraordinary than any previous production we can bring to this text? Unlike with Shakespeare, changing the period of a Coward would be a bizarre choice. And so the space in which the theatre maker is left to create is narrower. It is in her work on characterization, humour, energy and innovative blocking that Sasha Brooks breathes a fresh life into Private Lives. However, her work is sometimes let down by some rougher edges in the play’s aesthetic and execution. This production of Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners is by no means perfect. And, in part, can seem like a crude attempt to reproduce previous professional productions of the text. However, where it is good – it is very good.

“…It’s the crux of the situation…loving Amanda” blurts Elyot to Victor after rowing with him over their shared love interest. Will Bishop’s steely Elyot shoots verbal bullets into Tom Chamberlain’s charmingly vulnerable Victor. Whilst identifying Amanda Prynne as the central object of affection in the play, he also spotlights Bethan Davidson’s poised portrayal of her. Tonight her standout, exquisitely naturalistic, performance holds the unerring attention of the audience. Where another actor will simply walk across the stage, she will conflate gliding, pondering and attacking into several small steps and eye movements. Bethan Davidson has a stellar quality – and is certainly an actor to watch.

The historically accurate clothing provided by costume designer Freddie Cooke creates a series of glamourous looks, enhancing the cast’s watchability. However, this standard is not matched consistently by the set design. The domestic scenes of the play’s second and third act are dressed fittingly though basically. A flabby purple synthetic curtain provides a distracting and anachronistic back drop to the play’s first act. From this angle, the show’s finer details seem quite cobbled together at the last minute.

Eleanor Mack (Sibyl), particularly in the earlier scenes, paces through lines without properly pausing to listen to her fellow cast members. Though her performance can be melodramatic at times, she does retain a charming stage presence, and is particularly strong in moments of humour. It is important to acknowledge, too, the brief but beautifully dead pan entrances of the french maid, Louise. These serve to calm the play’s otherwise frenetic energy .

Will Bishop’s brooding Elyot is a strong match for Amanda. He is particularly good at bringing out Elyot’s arrogant and aggressive side , having a knack for guiding whatever onstage action he is involved in. However, his performance could have benefited from teasing out a more romantic, passionate side to the character. Indeed, Anna Chancellor, the Amanda to Toby Stephens’ Elyot commented how “you think these two must really be at it”. It is Act 2 that serves to capture this essence in Brooks’ production. In some of the most convincing stage fighting I have seen in student drama, here, Brooks’ choreography really comes into its own. In the text Coward finalizes the scene with a stinging blow given by Amanda to Elyot. Brooks places a nice twist on this by having both characters nearly break each other’s noses, in equal measure, with a head on collision. It's strangely romantic.

As Act Two fires between highly sexualized flirtation and highly sexualized fighting it captures the cyclical patterns of emotion that perpetuate the play, delighting Coward fans on the search for polite debauchery. Indeed this production – it seems intentionally – eroticizes its characters’ fights more than their embraces. Ironically it is its internal struggle between professional and more amateur elements that serve, sometimes, to erode its quality. However, especially for the performances of its leads, I would thoroughly recommend attending.

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