Written over 80 years ago, in 1930, Private Lives is Noel Coward’s most famous play and, as such, is one of his most frequently staged. One of the most recent revivals was last year’s major West End production with Kim Cattrall and Matthew MacFadyen playing the feuding couple, Amanda and Elyot.
In Michael Buffong’s production Imogen Stubbs plays Amanda, the fiery divorcee who finds on the honeymoon of her second marriage that she, improbably enough, is staying in the same hotel as her first husband, Elyot, who also happens to be on honeymoon with his new wife, Sybil. Initially horrified, they argue, but the attraction between them is evident and it’s not long before they are back together and running off to Paris, where – of course – they fight some more.
It’s a simple tale (Coward wrote it in just four days), but crammed with his trademark wit. For a play as familiar as this, the casting becomes the most important factor in bringing something fresh to the production, and Buffong has succeeded in this respect. Stubbs makes a sensational Amanda; she has a superb sense of comic timing and has real chemistry with Simon Robson’s Elyot. While her character is actually a bit of a nightmare – manipulative, bitchy and shallow – Stubbs makes her compelling.
The production as a whole has been well cast. Robson has probably the most difficult role here; he starts off as a louche charmer, before being revealed in the second act as a violent misogynistic bully. But he negotiates this hurdle, blending a sardonic sense of humour with an underlying sense of menace. There is something increasingly unsettling about his manner.
It’s quite strange to see such a quintessentially Welsh actress as Joanna Page performing with a cut-glass English accent as Sybil, but she mainly pulls it off (apart from a couple of wobbles near the end) and is a joy to watch. Clive Hayward is also solid in his role as Amanda’s spurned husband, Victor – at one point, smugly declaring “I’m glad I’m normal” before unravelling to great comic effect during the play’s final act.
Although Coward’s play is primarily a comedy, there’s a much darker side to the relationships depicted which Buffong’s production draws out. Elyot is a quite shocking misogynist who has no qualms in declaring that “women should be struck regularly, like a gong.” The violent fight between him and Amanda that dominates the second act is full of cartoon slapstick violence, which is funny to watch but also at times quite shocking and unnerving.
In fact none of the characters are particularly likeable or sympathetic. Elyot and Amanda are both deeply flawed. Sybil is whiny and insecure, and Victor is both smug and a bit of a doormat. It’s a credit to the quality of the acting on display here that this doesn’t seem to matter.
Ellen Cairns’ stage design is suitably opulent, with an ambitious changeover during the interval, the stage transforming from a lush hotel veranda to Amanda’s hideaway flat in Paris. Buffong also ensures that the play zips along and, despite the play’s age, Coward’s masterpiece hasn’t particularly dated. After all, the notion of love and hate being two sides of the same coin is a timeless one and this lively production honours that while also teasing out some of the play’s innate darkness.