Chichester is becoming a crucible for creating West End smashes and here comes another one. Jonathan Kent’s production of Private Lives is an acerbic, witty joy, the performances mesmerising, the play still fresh and funny after 80 years.
It shouldn’t really be this much fun, of course. Because Private Lives could so easily have been titled Awful People. It’s a tale of spoiled, privileged poshos who wreak devastation on their unwitting spouses (and don’t we have enough of that in modern life already?), and yet we’re still supposed to be on their side. And they are truly awful: selfish, self-indulgent and self-dramatising. Amanda is shallow and manipulative, and Elyot is a violent bully (you may be able to write off his physical clashes with his first wife as retaliation for her own violence, but it’s unpleasantly revealing how quickly he resorts to threatening language when his second refuses to do exactly as he wishes.) Yet somehow they get away with it. You may not like them, exactly (it’s extremely hard to like a man who states that ‘certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs’, and who applies some hefty double standards when it comes to sexual conduct ) but whether flirting or fighting, they are undeniably entertaining, and Kent’s fast-paced production wrings every last laugh from Coward’s badinage.
He’s helped in this by a peerless cast. Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens are compelling as the warring leads – Chancellor in particular is excellent, using her beautifully expressive features to great effect, coolly damning with nothing more than the quirk of an eyebrow or the roll of her eyes. Stephens matches this with an incredibly physical performance: his Elyot is a volcanic man-boy, his emotions never far from the surface, as he explodes into anger or passion or panic, though at the same time he constantly seems to seek an amused detachment, defaulting to the flippancy that so annoys those around him, as if he finds even his own emotions ridiculous and slightly tedious.
Their chemistry is what drives the piece, and it is utterly convincing, played out with an impressive, almost athletic physicality, especially in the Paris scenes, where the pair sprawl over their apartment and each other, their attraction so tangible it really does feel like an inevitable, undeniable force. The scenes where they take wordless ‘time outs’ from their fighting are a masterclass in silent acting – sometimes moving, sometimes romantic, sometimes laugh out loud funny – as two intensely verbal creatures try to reconcile, to articulate their frustrations or woo each other back to the moment without the crutch of clever lines to lean on.
In part, of course, it’s so easy to side with these two damned and damaged creatures because the spouses they abandon turn out to be equally dreadful but less witty with it, constantly harping on their partners’ first marriage in a way that seems to almost conjure the disaster – in trying to extinguish all sparks of that former passion, they merely fan the flames. Anna-Louise Plowman is enjoyably annoying as the clingy wife Sybil, and though at times her constant weeping felt a little overdone, she came really into her own in the second half of the play, when she shows herself capable of more than a little sly malice and manipulation of her own. As Amanda’s stuffy and self-righteous husband Victor, Anthony Calf ends up being the most sympathetic character of the lot, his only real flaw the bad judgement of falling for a woman he’s so patently unsuited to. The only slightly sour note comes from Sue Kelvin’s French housekeeper Louise – while we may be laughing with her in disgust at the crazy English folk, there’s also a touch of the ‘comedy foreigner’ about her, a trope that’s as dated as Elyot’s gender politics.
Although there’s little original that can be done with the opening balcony sequence, once the action moves on, Anthony Ward’s lush Paris set complements the action perfectly, conjuring a decadently overstuffed bolthole away from the world where the lovers seek to hide from their sins, since cowardice is another one of their crimes, and both are equally unwilling to face up to the consequences of their actions. Kent’s direction is sharp and nuanced – he does allow the action to occasionally veer dangerously close to knockabout farce, but always manages to pull back in time, and at barely two hours in total it moves so briskly it never outstays its welcome. It may well be, like Amanda claims of her heart, jagged with sophistication, but it is a spiky, spirited pleasure.