Jonathan Kent directs a glamorous revival of Noel Coward’s 1930’s screwball comedy Private Lives, transferring to the West End after a spectacularly successful run at Chichester Festival Theatre. Private Lives is the classic tale of passion, lust and lost loves and after receiving unanimous critical acclaim, this highly-anticipated transfer comes to London’s Gielgud Theatre for a strictly-limited season beginning in June 2013. First performed in 1930, Kent’s revival of Private Lives proves that Coward still has the power to thrill, shock and delight audiences in the 21st century.
Following rich divorced couple Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, the two reignite their love for each other when they are unexpectedly booked in to adjoining suites of a Riviera hotel, five years on from their last meeting. The only problem is, they are both booked in on their honeymoons with their respective new partners! After their chance encounter brings back the passion they once felt for each other, they fling themselves into a whirlwind romance, with no regard for their partners’ turbulent pasts. Toby Stephens stars as Elyot, with his numerous theatre credits include Danton’s Death, The Real Thing, A Doll’s House and A Streetcar Named Desire. Stephens is also well-known for his villainous role in Die Another Day. Anna Chancellor also stars as Amanda, with previous credits including South Downs and The Browning Version, which both transferred from Chichester to the West End. They are joined by Anthony Calf (Death and the Maiden) as Victor Prynne and Anna-Louise Plowman as Sibyl Chase. Directed by Jonathan Kent (Sweeney Todd), Private Lives features design by Anthony Ward, lighting design by Mark Henderson and sound design by Paul Groothuis, with original music by Matthew Scott. A passionate, reckless and devilishly delicious play by Noel Coward, Private Lives transfers to the Gielgud Theatre for a limited run that must end September 2013.
Digital Theatre captured Private Lives during its run at the Gielgud Theatre.
CAST INCLUDES: Anna Chancellor, Toby Stephens, Anthony Calf, Anna-Louise Plowman, Sue Kelvin.
‘Last autumn's modernist Private Lives in the intimate Minerva Theatre, Chichester, has stormed into the West End proving yet again that Noël Coward's imperishable 1930 comedy thrives best when played to the hilt for real and not too preciously.
Elyot and Amanda, newly re-married to other people, meet by chance on their neighbouring balconies in Deauville, elope naughtily to Paris and start getting on each other's nerves all over again. That's it. But what Coward called the lightest of light comedies is actually a charade of chauvinism, a steely, stylish battle of egotism and sexual attraction.
Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor play it to perfection at the Gielgud and do so, most impressively, in the vivid and immediate present. They are creatures of appalling impulse, driven to extravagant displays of irritation and affection on some primal, rhythmic surge of fear and loathing. It's a jazz age junket of manic self-indulgence.
And of course it's so brilliantly funny you hardly have time to catch your breath as Jonathan Kent's production batters at your twin reactions of delight and disapproval. Stephens' haughty Elyot is a slightly ridiculous poseur in a barathea blazer on his balcony, clearly bored with Anna-Louise Plowman's vacuous, willowy Sybil already, while Chancellor's Amanda, all bony shoulders and beaky bravura, is a jagged and rhapsodic bohemian.
She could have stepped down from her own wall in the grand Paris apartment designed for her by Antony Ward, which is a riot of gold leaf and paintings in the abstract, cubist and colourful style of Juan Gris, Fernand Léger and Picasso; she retaliates to Elyot's elision of the Waldstein sonata and "Some Day I'll Find You" on the piano with a savagely hilarious dance routine to her records of The Rite of Spring.
Here's one thing, though: Toby doesn't play the piano (it's a fuzzy soundtrack) and Anna doesn't sing, both essential prerequisites for their roles, I reckon, just as Gayev in The Cherry Orchard ought to know his way round a snooker table and seldom does. And this one negative paragraph would also suggest that the actors are at least ten years older than they should be (Coward says Elyot is "about 30").
Aside from that, the play skitters on its merry way like an uncoiled stretch of barbed wire. "I'm glad I'm normal," offers Anthony Calf's pleasantly befuddled Victor, like a dim-witted version of James Fox. "What an odd thing to be glad about," replies the temporarily derailed Amanda, pointing up the fact that her relationship with Elyot is an exercise in preening, catty exhibitionism.
The fur really does fly, as well as the furniture, in their copulative wrestling match, the sort of no-holds-barred angry love-making Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner used to go in for, apparently. Such fun, but so exhausting, and they keep it under control with the "pax" word, "Sollocks." "Where are you going?" cries a distraught Sybil; "Canada" says Elyot, almost the funniest riposte in the play.
Calf's Victor is the sort of chap who rolls up his tie when he removes his jacket for a fight, and there you have the ultimate statement in the cautious and the carefree. But even the straight couple quarrels, as the curtain descends on a new chapter in these noisy private lives, leaving Sue Kelvin's roly-poly French maid (more complicatedly verbose in this version) to butter her own brioches and tidy up the debris.’
What's On Stage
‘How do you play Noël Coward's famous comedy? For its verbal musicality or its emotional reality? Overstress either and the play suffers. Jonathan Kent's revival gets the balance just right – and reminds us that the piece's appeal lies in its joyously irresponsible defence of bohemian privilege against bourgeois rectitude. For more than 80 years, Coward's play has been quietly taking the piss out of its middle-class audience's strongest beliefs.
The central casting in Kent's production is spot-on. Toby Stephens lends Elyot, who absconds with his ex-wife while they are in the midst of honeymooning with new partners, a languourous drawl and a wicked temper: even the way his dangling left hand flicks cigarette-ash over the balcony of his Deauville hotel suggests a mounting irritation with his second spouse. There is a similar fretful impatience to the way Anna Chancellor's steely Amanda brushes aside her new husband's eager kisses. This both motivates Elyot and Amanda's flight and lays the ground for the great second act in which the couple hurl themselves at each other, and the furniture, with a love-hate intensity that momentarily recalls Strindberg. But what Stephens and Chancellor bring out perfectly is the couple's childish egotism and the strangely androgynous nature of a relationship in which Elyot's sulks and flounces are met by Amanda's ruthless body-blows.
The test of a good Private Lives also lies in the quality of the rejected partners. Anthony Calf's Victor is a precise study of a determined, clean-cut rationalist who finds himself hopelessly at sea in a violently irrational situation. Anna-Louise Plowman's Sibyl is also skittish and frilly in a way that was once considered traditionally feminine. And this, if anything, is the point that comes most strongly out of this immensely enjoyable production. Victor and Sibyl embody what Shaw once jokingly called the "manly man" and the "womanly woman", while Elyot and Amanda exist on a level where male and female tendencies prove intriguingly and excitingly flexible.’
‘It’s hard to believe that Private Lives (1930) is even older than the Rolling Stones. For while Mick and Keef now seem like a geriatric parody of their former selves this is a comedy that in Jonathan Kent’s superb production feels forever young, fresh and delightful.
It’s not always like that of course. In lesser productions Coward’s epigrammatic one-liners can seem tired and mannered, and if there is no coup-de-foudre between the actors playing Elyot and Amanda the play can seem a self-regarding bore.
Here however the chemistry proves spectacularly combustible. I didn’t think I would ever see a sexier Private Lives than the one starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan more than a dozen years ago but the sense of unbuttoned intimacy and desire between Anna Chancellor’s Amanda and Toby Stephens’s Elyot proves even stronger. As Chancellor put it in a Telegraph interview “you think these two must really be at it.”
You sense this from the opening scene when the divorced couple meet on their adjoining balconies at the Deauville hotel where each is spending the first night of their honeymoon with new partners.
Amanda asks Elyot for a cigarette. Instead of simply offering her his cigarette case as Coward’s stage direction suggests, he removes the cigarette from his own mouth and gives it to Amanda before lighting a fresh one for himself. You sense at once that this is a couple who know each other through and through and have enjoyed many a post-coital gasper together.
But throughout the performances feel fresh-minted. There is a real edge of danger about Stephens’s vulpine Elyot. When he turns on his clingy and insipid new bride Sibyl and hisses “I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe” the stinging venom of his delivery is genuinely shocking. This is a brute who isn’t joking when he announces that “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”.
Anna Chancellor meanwhile plays Amanda with a sensual, slightly raddled glamour, her wit and bohemian extravagance often seeming like a defence mechanism against the knowledge that she is growing old. For the prospect of age and death haunts the play and its giddy wit is like a raspberry of defiance blown at the grim reaper. Elyot is only half joking when he remarks to Amanda: “Kiss me darling, before your body rots and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets.”
The great central act in which post-coital languor gradually gives way first to irritation, then anger and finally to no-holds-barred domestic violence is staged with virtuosic panache and invention by Kent, and brilliantly played by the two leads. It will be a long time before I forget the sight of Chancellor dancing to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to rile her lover into physically incontinent fury.
Coward described the couple’s drearily conventional new spouses, Victor and Sibyl, as little more than ninepins, set up to be knocked down, but Anthony Calf and Anna-Louise Plowman play them with distinction, the one hilariously pompous, the other a ghastly moaning Minnie.
This is a gloriously entertaining evening, opulently designed by Anthony Ward, and offering two hours of comic bliss.’