Tag Archives: Private Lives

Public Laughs


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 8th February, 2016


Noel Coward’s comedy comes to town in this new touring production and yet again passes the test of time.   Yes, certain words have changed, and so have some attitudes, but the play’s underlying humanity remains the key to its longevity. On the surface, it’s a conventional, drawing-room comedy, of the well-to-do, living the high life, with only romantic complications to contend with. Coward subverts the genre by having two of those characters, Elyot and Amanda, behaving despicably. Divorced from each other for five years, they are both on honeymoons with brand new spouses. But as soon as they meet, the sparks fly, rekindling their former, decidedly destructive passion. They run off together and this is when we get to see them behind closed doors. Moments of intimacy are interrupted by outbursts of violence. The couple sling barbed comments, brickbats and objets d’art at each other. They’re like Japanese fighting carp, unable to co-exist in the same space without conflict and yet needing each other in order to exist at all.

Laura Rogers is spot on as Amanda, combining cool elegance with hot-headed passion, often in the same epigram. Tom Chambers’s Elyot may not be able to match her in managing the plummy language but his physical comedy and his double-take reactions are superb. Of course, his Strictly background comes out: the couple dance a loose Charleston in their Paris flat, a lovely moment in contrast with all the verbal bombardments. Director Tom Attenborough allows Chambers to play to his strengths, giving him plenty of larger-than-life comic business.

Richard Teverson gives strong support as Amanda’s fuddy-duddy second husband, Victor, while Charlotte Ritchie’s Sybil, Elyot’s second wife, encapsulates the innocence of the era – that is until she loses her rag with the infuriating Victor in a tremendous loss of temper, enabling the show to finish on a moment of high comedy. A magnificent performance – you wouldn’t think Sybil would have it in her.

Lucy Osborne’s set hints at the glamour of the south of France, with its art deco hotel balconies and also grounds us in the cosy chic of the stylish apartment, contrasting the airy public spaces with the solid, private rooms. It is behind closed doors that we reveal who we really are.

Of course, it is Coward’s audacious script that is the star of the show. The wit effervesces like champagne while the undercurrents of the characters’ true natures bubble to the surface in shocking glimpses. Elyot and Amanda deserve each other but Coward is also showing us that behind the public façade, even the most rarefied creatures have hidden depths.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of an absolute classic.

'Private Lives' Play on Tour

Strictly entre nous. Laura Rogers and Tom Chambers (Photo: Alastair Muir)




Behind Closed Doors


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

Here we go again!  Fiona Hampton and Harry Long as Amanda and Elyot.

Here we go again! Fiona Hampton and Harry Long as Amanda and Elyot.


Bitter Sweet


Playhouse, Nottingham, Thursday 13th October, 2011


Often described as a “comedy of manners” Noel Coward’s 1930 play resonates differently these days, I wager.  The plot concerns the coincidental encounter of a divorced couple – they happen to have booked adjacent hotel suites for their honeymoons with new spouses.  It soon becomes clear their first marriage was a volatile and passionate experience and that there is unfinished business and continuation of feeling still between them.


So, they abandon their new partners on their wedding night and bugger off to a bijou flat in Paris.  So far, so charming.  The dialogue is witty, snappy even, and peppered with “dahlings” and “teddibly, teddibly soddy” and leading man Rupert Wyckham’s performance has more than a hint of Noel Coward about it (and sometimes a touch of Simon Callow – it’s not an entirely consistent delivery).


In the flat, the reunited couple establish a safe word to call a halt when proceedings are getting out of hand, but even this isn’t enough to stop violence from breaking out.  The violence is dealt with a comic touch – a gramophone record is smashed over his head, they tip each other over the backs of sofas, and so on – but in this day and age, awareness of domestic violence, alcohol-related abuse, and mutually abusive relationships brings the darker edge of the drama to the fore.


The subsequent coffee klatch when the abandoned partners turn up in Paris is therefore more starkly contrasted: we have seen the violence beneath the urbanity and civility.  Elyot and Amanda are koi carp and shouldn’t get tanked up together, but they are unable to survive apart.  The play ends with their new spouses getting into a right old ding-dong with each other – their passion, previously unseen and presumed missing, has been ignited at last.  Elyot and Amanda tiptoe from the room, leaving their new exes to each other and their new-found love-hate relationship.


As fiery Amanda, Janie Dee achieves a balance between assertiveness and vulnerability, ably contrasted with Victoria Yeates’s Sibyl, who uses her toothy grin to charming and ditzy effect.   The men aren’t quite as strong – Coward’s dialogue seems a little too stilted in their mouths.  Director Giles Croft keeps the pace moving – the moments of silence after the safe word has been uttered are especially well done.


The play is a vote for passion and all its destructive qualities.  Knowing what we do of the private life of Coward, this was very brave.