Review by Daz Gale
Noel Coward plays and London stages are among the best marriages in theatre. However, not all productions of his plays can stand the test of time and some might lead to a nasty separation. With that in mind, one of his most loved classics is back for another stab as Private Lives settles in to the Donmar Warehouse. But could this production be able to do his iconic writing justice and make audiences fall in love with it all over again?
One of Noel Cowards' enduring classics, Private Lives was first seen in 1930 and has been repeatedly revived both in the West End and Broadway with adaptations across TV, film, and radio throughout the best part of the last century. It tells the story of two newlywed couples (Elyot and Sibyl, Amanda and Victor) on their honeymoons next to each other. What should be a happy and drama-free night in both couple's lives takes an unexpected twist with the realisation Elyot and Amanda used to be married to each other. This twist of fate leads to old feelings resurfacing as they both ditch their new spouses to have a second go at their own relationship. What follows is a demonstration of flippancy as loose ends need tying up and the old lovers remember why they might not have been so good together in the first place.
Noel Cowards writing truly stands the test of time with the dialogue between the four main characters managing to feel fresh today while simultaneously remaining true to the time it was written in. At no point do any of the phrases that are less commonplace in 2023 than they were in 1930 feel jarring or inaccessible – a testament to the brilliance of the original piece. The genius of Noel Cowards' works hardly needs highlighting in a review such as this – his legacy speaks for itself and there is a reason these plays are still revived close to 100 years later. The issue is how do you put on a new production of such a classic in a way that can bring something new and different to it while still doing the original justice?
The answer to that is with ease. There are several things to attribute to this but the overarching one to mention is the direction. Michael Longhurst has meticulously delved deep into the core text of the story to bring all the key themes and flesh out these extreme characters who on some hands may be hard to feel compassion for. All the directorial choices show real precision and intricacy which is consistently impressive. The volatile nature of the relationships leads to a lot of fights, both verbal and physical. This is played out to perfection thanks to exquisite fight direction from Kate Waters, while the general movement direction from Chi-San Howard ensures every single detail is maximised to create the best possible impact. These elements combine to sometimes jaw-dropping effect in a show whose success partly relies on the physical nature of it all.
Several productions I have seen at Donmar Warehouse in recent years have used reveals in their set design, and Private Lives is no exception. Beautiful set design by Hildegard Bechtler transforms the action across two different locations not only with ease but with a sprinkling of theatre magic as well. Fantastic attention to detail leads to a truly magnificent climax to the first act with genius touches throughout the course of the play.
While the writing, direction, and production elements were all astonishing, the cast themselves were equally impressive. Stephen Mangan excels as Elyot Chase, bringing every ounce of comedy he possibly can to the role. A versatile actor from his past roles, he is at his best here with a charismatic turn as a problematic character you can’t help but love to hate.
Laura Carmichael gives a star turn as Sibyl Chase, lingering in your mind despite her comparatively little stage time in the first act. Her composure even as things veer towards a farcical territory is a highlight of the play. The other jilted lover, Victor, is played with a touch of stiff upper lip by Sargon Yelda who is at his best when he is going toe to toe with Stephen Mangans Elyot.
Perhaps the standout among the cast is Rachael Stirlings completely scene-stealing performance as Amanda. With the essence of a movie star, she commands not only her fellow cast members but the audience as well in a performance that is consistently charming and captivating. Digging deep into the character of Amanda, she is able to deliver a masterclass performance with an effortless knack for comedic timing.
While Private Lives is a comedy at heart, there is a lot of darkness when it comes to the story. The sparring couple take their fights far with physical violence and some truly cutting verbal insults alluded to throughout the show and examples of them demonstrated on various occasions. Themes like this give the show more depth than it may initially appear to have, though that’s not to say it isn’t wickedly funny as it is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The themes extend themselves in unexpected places with an inspired moment during the interval featuring the shows violinist Faoileann Cunningham and cellist Harry Napier leading to an altercation of their own. Music plays a key part of the story with composer Simon Slater using an extra element to highlight the story and, at times, foreshadow the oncoming darker moments of the show.
Perhaps Noel Coward purists might not take to some of the choices in this production of Private Lives. However, as this was the first time I had seen the show on stage, I had nothing to compare it to and as such found the whole thing to be absolutely outstanding. From the exquisite staging, flawless direction, and truly immeasurable cast, there is nothing flippant about this sensational production which easily manages to be more successful than any of the marriages in the show.
Private Lives plays at Donmar Warehouse until 27th May. Tickets from donmarwarehouse.com
Photos by Marc Brenner