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).
(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 25 May)
Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is deceptively simple. The plot – a divorced couple finding themselves honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel rekindle both their passion and the causes for the break-up – calls for the two main characters to dominate the stage, notably in the second act, while the subsidiary pair need to establish themselves just a forcibly but without tipping the balance.
In the event, Esther Richardson’s new production as part of the 2016 Made in Colchester season slightly perverts this. That’s because Krissi Bohn’s bright and brittle Amanda has the perfect foil in Olivia onyehara’s steely fluff of a Sybil. It’s easy to visualise this Amanda as the fast-set darling, sparkling in drawing-rooms and cocktail bars. Sara Perks has given her costumes which are right for the period and which subtly reflect the photographs of Gertrude Lawrence (who created the role).
Sybil wears pink – soft, pleated and tending towards the feathery. From Onyehara’s first entrance, preening as though a society photographer was lurking on the balcony, she gives an impression that this kitten has teeth as well as claws. That’s something which Robin Kingsland’s Victor discovers as they set off in pursuit of their errant mates.
Kingsland puts great sincerity into his Paris exchange with Amanda; this is one of those moments when both author and director lift the veil of frivolity to suggest that these are real people, who can feel real hurt. Pete Ashmore’s Elyot has a touch of petulance about him, whih slips dangerously near to being camp; those 40 minutes in Act Two when Amanda and Elyot are fired with all their previous feelings with each other never quite sustained themselves.
The maid for Amanda’s Paris flat is one of those cough-and-a-spit parts which provide the right actress with a chance to steal the show. Christine Absalom, a Mercury audience favourite, does just that in the third act, earning herself several rounds of applause. Adam P McCready’s sound design and original score (which incorporates snatches of Coward’s own music) adds to the atmosphere.
Private Lives runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 4 June with matinées on 26 and 28 May, 2 and 4 June.
Tucked away on the north Norfolk coast between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Cromer (think of all those delicious crabs and lobsters for which this stretch of coast is renowned) is Sheringham. Under Debbie Thompson its Little Theatre is a thriving concern, though suffering from the usual funding crises.
The programme for this year’s summer repertory season has been announced. It was preceded between 1 and 6 June by a fund-raising production – most appropriately – of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. The 55th summer season itself opens on 21 July with Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, directed by theatre patron Desmond Barrit; the cast includes Paul Lavers. That runs until 28 July.
Between 30 July and 5 August the mood changes with that classic thriller The Late Edwina Black, a wife who seeks revenge from beyond her deathbed. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce from 7 to 18 August is directed by another of the theatre’s patrons, Nicky Henson. The comedy Perfect Wedding by Robin Hawdon is the penultimate production between 20 and 29 August.
Another classic, Noël Coward’s Private Lives, brings the summer season at the Little Theatre to a close from 1 to 5 September. It is directed by the third of the theatre’s patrons Peter Craze.