Review: Private Lives
By Jay Darcy
I’m not all that familiar with the work of the late, great Sir Noël Coward. I know he’s a darling of British theatre – a playwright, composer, director, actor, and singer all in one – but I’ve never seen any of his plays. I know a little bit about Blithe Spirit, but only because it recently starred Jennifer Saunders, and that peaked my interest. Similarly, the only reason I wanted to see Private Lives was because it stars Patricia Hodge, OBE – who most people now recognise from Miranda, in which she played the title character’s mad, marvellous mother.
I’m quite fond of fabulous older women – especially Saunders’ Absolutely Fabulous co-star, Joanna Lumley, DBE FRGS – and leap at the chance of getting to see them on stage (especially because it could be my last chance to do so). won’t only go to see them in plays and musicals but also in conversation: I’ve seen both Lumley and Dame Doan Collins DBE in conversation, and I’ve seen Toyah Wilcox in a play and in conversation (and I’m still bitter I missed her sold-out gig a few weeks back).
So, when I saw that Hodge was starring in some old play about an old couple, I knew I had to go and see it. Even better – the play also stars the beloved Nigel Havers, whose production company is behind the play.
However, this all changed when we walked into the auditorium. The curtain was already up, revealing a set that was splendid and sumptuous: the outside of a French hotel, complete with patio doors and balconies. We were immediately transported to the destination of the play: a high-class holiday destination.
I’m a sucker for a spectacular set, especially one that takes me to the setting of the show without requiring too much thought or imagination – and after my turbulent journey getting to the theatre, my headspace was already full – with dark thoughts.
Thank gosh, I thought, as I sank down in my seat, ready to watch the show as passively as possible.
The play opened with Elyot (Havers) and his new wife, Sibyl (Natalie Walter), coming out of one of the apartments and onto the balcony. They’re on their honeymoon, yet they seem to be spending most of it talking about Elyot’s ex-wife, Amanda. After they go back into the apartment, Amanda (Hodge) and her new husband, Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), come out of their apartment – which is next door – and onto their balcony.
This scene mirrors the previous one: Amanda and Victor are also on their honeymoon, and they, too, seem to be spending most of it talking about Amanda’s ex-husband, Elyot. It was a wonderful introduction to the characters that masterfully established the context. We were quickly informed of what was happening, and the influx of information was given to us with brilliant British humour.
Whilst the play is from 1930, the comedy still hit. Perhaps that’s testament to how fantastically funny Coward’s sense of humour was, if not even ahead of its time. Conversely, it could be evident of how little British comedy has developed over the last century – but either way, I found myself chuckling over the two-hour runtime (albeit never bursting into laughter).
The show plays around with stereotypes. I was expecting reductive portrayals of women, for instance, the scorned, older ex-wife and the jealous, younger new wife. Sure, the characters had those qualities, but that’s understandable because a comedy of manners (or anti-sentimental comedy) relies on archetypes to tell its story. That said, the women were much more interesting and likeable than is often the case. Further, the male characters, too, embodied archetypes – especially Havers’ misogynistic, aged playboy laughter.
I do wonder, though, what the audience response was to the play back in the day. When Amanda called Elyot out for his hypocrisy towards their adultery, he justified it with, “Because I’m a man”. The audience let out a huge gasp, horrified and humoured. My friend, Madison, joked that back in the 1930s, there would have been no response!
The mirroring of scenes continued throughout the play, and it made for some funny moments. Whilst it allowed us to expect what was coming, the outcome was sometimes a little different to what we expected, which added to the humour. It really is a well-written script – not groundbreaking, not even the most memorable, but solid. The play knows what it wants to achieve, and it sets out to get it.
The second act saw the stage transformed into the inside of an opulent Parisian apartment. It oozed wealth and flamboyance.
Whilst the first act set the scene, the action really picked up in the second, gradually getting more and more dramatic – and funny. Part way through the second act, the lights went out and the curtain came down so that the crew could change the set a little. The play then reached its peak; the whole “third act” was basically just a giant argument b the four main characters, but we were also introduced to the criminally underwritten maid, Louise (Aïcha Kossoko).
The play’s unexpected but understandable ending was satisfying, poetic, and hilarious. It really was the perfect way to end a farcical comedy about a divorced couple marrying younger people and accidentally reuniting on their honeymoons!
Private Lives plays at the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre until 19th February before continuing its UK tour until the end of April.