New Vic Theatre, Wednesday 6th May, 2015
Noel Coward’s comedy is like champagne, with its sparkling, effervescent wit and dry humour, and it’s easy to regard it as a light bit of froth. This comedy, though, has bite.
The Octagon Theatre Bolton brings this production to the New Vic and it’s a good fit for the space. In the round, we are the walls surrounding the private lives of the couple in question. They are Elyot (Harry Long) a louche, witty fellow who seems to speak almost entirely in adverbs (terribly, beastly, ghastly and so on) and Amanda (Fiona Hampton) spirited and lively – it is clear these two are made for each other. Except when the play begins, they are honeymooning with their respective new spouses. Coincidence books them into adjacent hotel suites and, out on the balcony, they meet again, five years after their explosive marriage ended in divorce. It is soon clear that passions still run high between them. Harry Long shifts gear from urbane commentator to man-with-heart-on-his-sleeve, showing us how swiftly Amanda pushes Elyot’s buttons. Fiona Hampton too reveals the depth beneath Amanda’s party girl façade. Director Elizabeth Newman handles their mood swings and escalating rows so that the emotional exchanges and savage remarks sound natural, even in Coward’s of-its-time and epigrammatic dialogue.
Jessica Baglow is appealing as Elyot’s sweet-natured second wife Sibyl and Niall Costigan is suitably blustering as Amanda’s second husband Victor. They track their spouses to a love-nest in Paris where passion boils over into violent outbursts and domestic violence. Clearly, Elyot and Amanda are like koi carp and shouldn’t be penned up together, but then they’re obviously made for each other.
There is an appearance by Chiraz Aich as French maid Louise, here played as a touch of naturalism in this world of heightened wit and emotion. I have seen the part portrayed as a caricature but I like this better: this Louise is the litmus paper that shows us how extreme is the behaviour of the others.
Amanda Stoodley’s design is elegant black and white for the hotel balcony scenes – the polarity of Elyot and Amanda’s mood swings! – and cosy and brown with period furniture for the scenes behind closed doors.
We may not speak the way Coward’s characters do – perhaps no one ever did – but he shows us that behind the veneer of civility and what we might call ‘banter’ today, animal passions are just below the surface. Elyot and Amanda run with theirs, thereby triggering similar depths of feeling in their abandoned spouses.
An engaging and amusing production – the fights (directed by Terry King) are kept just short of shocking. In the end, you admire the strength of the performances by this excellent ensemble rather than applauding the conduct of the characters