reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 12 September
Coward’s Private Lives is a deceptively simple play to stage, as director Michael Cabot acknowledges in his programme notes for London Classic Theatre’s new production. His designer Frankie Bradshaw has provided two sets which emphasise this.
The characters are caught in a sort of no-man’s-land, poised between two world wars. Their society is no longer that of the Bright Young Things of the 20s but it still has its own rules and restrictions as well as the dual concept of male and female sexuality.
Amanda is the character who perhaps recognises this most clearly; a double divorce will isolate her in a fashion which neither of her husbands is likely to experience. Sybil is the eternal, cosseted ingénue who only at the end of the play perhaps – and it’s a big perhaps – has a glimmering that standing up for yourself needs to start at the first step into adult society rather than at the church door.
One might say that all this subtext is communicated in spite of some of the actors, not through them. Helen Keeley looks and acts Amanda to the last flick of an eyelash but she speaks Coward’s staccato dialogue with a machine-gun delivery which reduces much of it to the spoken equivalent of one of WS Gilbert’s patter songs – “this particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard …”
Her Elyot is Jack Hardwick, who has the well-tailored measure of his part, as does Kieran Buckeridge’s buttoned-up Victor as he tries to cope first with a wife who’s just not on his wavelength and then with Sybil at her own point of no return.
Olivia Beardsley’s pastel, marcel-waved portrait of this secondary female role has its strengths as well as its sillinesses. Rachael Holmes-Brown plays the maid Louise, making her into less of a caricature than some I have seen lately. But it would all be so much better if three acts hadn’t been crammed into two hours, including the interval, and the dialogue allowed to breathe.
Four star rating.
Private Lives is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 16 September with matinées on 13 and 16 September as part of a national tour to 25 November including Harlow Playhouse (19-21 October, the Alban Arena, St Albans (24-25 October), the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (26-28 October) and the Key Theatre, Peterborough (13-15 November).