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Review: Private Lives (Ambassadors Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale


Productions of Private Lives in London are like buses. You wait years for one to come along and then two arrive at once – both literally down the road from each other. Following the outstanding Donmar Warehouse staging earlier this year, the Theatre Royal Bath production from 2021 has moved in to the West End for a season at Ambassadors Theatre. Would both productions need to fight it out to see who comes out on top and would this version be a match made in heaven or leave me longing to make an abrupt exit?

The classic comedy from Noël Coward was first performed in 1930 and has stood the test of time for close to a century now with countless revivals and adaptations across stage and screen. The premise of Private Lives sees newlyweds Elyot and Sibyl on their honeymoon next to another pair of newlyweds, Amanda and Victor – nothing out of the ordinary there, apart from the fact Elyot and Amanda used to be married to each other. As old feelings come rushing back, would their relationship work the second time around or would they very quickly remember why they divorced in the first place?

Noël Coward's writing remains as witty and wonderful today as it did when it first premiered all those decades ago. While some of the language is distinctly of its time, it is still completely accessible with natural flowing dialogue which is always easy to follow. The intricacies and nuances of the sometimes larger-than-life characters and expertly delivered punchlines creates a consistently funny story that beautifully demonstrates the troubles of married life as well as the delicate and often confusing balance between love and hate.

Christopher Luscombe’s direction brings the writing to life satisfyingly, albeit a little on the safe side. It feels wrong to compare this to the other production of the show I saw this year as each deserves to be judged on its own merits. However, upon watching this production, I struggled to separate the two and found myself inevitably comparing choices, no matter how hard I tried not to. While Christopher’s direction can’t be faulted in its own right, it feels a little more by-numbers and crowd-pleasing as opposed to some of the bolder choices in the Donmar production. That shouldn’t be seen as a negative in the slightest – often it is better to stick with the safer option, and the raucous reaction from the press night audience was a testament to the success of these choices.

Simon Higlett’s design is one of the best strengths of Private Lives, particularly at the reveal of the stage transformation in act two. A meticulously detailed and glorious looking recreation of Amanda’s flat is stunning to look at, with lots of clever elements hiding away. The design is lifted thanks to Mark Jonathan’s lighting design, allowing transformations to be as impactful as possible. Movement plays a pivotal role in this play, with Jenny Arnold’s choreography and Kev McCurdy’s fight direction giving an expert precision to the more chaotic moments between the warring couple.

Nigel Havers gives a pleasant portrayal of Elyot, particularly in the more comedic moments. A master in his craft, Havers delights with over the top moments that create crowd-pleasing hilarity. However, elements of his performance come across as slightly uneven, leading to a more one dimensional portrayal than I have seen before with some frustratingly inconsistent moments from a usually reliable and talented actor. Patricia Hodge is wonderful in her performance as Amanda, showing a versatile approach to her interpretation of the character with an unrivaled knack for comic timing. Crucially though, she also nails the more serious moments in her character’s story, wowing us all with her fantastic talents.

Together, Hodge and Havers form a formidable double act who are at their best during the rowdier, more aggressive moments though it does feel that the chemistry between them is somewhat lacking during the moments they are supposedly in love. What is clear to see between them is how much fun they are having on the stage with the feeling one of them might erupt into spontaneous laughter at any moment – that in itself is a joy to see and rather infectious.

Elsewhere in the intimate cast, Natalie Walter and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart shine as Sybil and Victor. Though taking a back seat to allow their two lovers to dominate, they make the most of their limited time on stage with big performances that culminate in a moment where they deservedly take centre stage. Always great to watch whenever they are on stage, their respective partners may not have been in love with them, but the audience certainly were.

This production of Private Lives was a faithful recreation of a well-loved classic. It is sure to appeal to audiences who would rather see a sure thing than try something new, and to that respect, it does the job perfectly. Had I not seen another production of the same show several months ago, I may have felt differently about this version. Perhaps my thoughts and overall rating would be the same regardless. While I still enjoyed this production immensely, it didn’t feel as slick as it could have been with some real uneven moments letting the overall high quality down. With many fantastic qualities going for it including the chance to see some legendary actors in a relatively intimate theatre, this is still a show audiences are sure to love.

Private Lives plays at Ambassadors Theatre until 25th November 2023. Tickets available here

Photos by Tristram Kenton

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