While it may be hard to do anything fresh with a play as oft-performed and rigidly structured as Private Lives, Tom Attenborough’s lushly staged production is frothy fun, the perfect anecdote to the grey skies of a long winter. It might never manage to be as memorable as the best interpretations of this piece – its teeth are a little blunted by a need to make the central pair more amiable than they should be – but it nevertheless slips down as smoothly as a crisply-made cocktail.
Lounging elegantly across Lucy Osborne’s beautiful sets, Tom Chambers brings charm aplenty to Elyot Chase, going for a slightly tetchy affability that maximises the man’s appeal, but minimises his flaws (this is, after all, someone who tells his new wife on the first night of their honeymoon that he’d like to cut her head off, and famously expresses the opinion that ‘certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs’). Although it doesn’t really kick in until the two of them relocate to Paris, he has a fine chemistry with Laura Rogers’ Amanda (a delightfully sharp-tongued and suitably ‘jagged with sophistication’ performance). The pair also have a flair for physical comedy that generates some of the evening’s biggest laughs – the production plays up the knockabout fight scenes to great effect, while still managing to convince us of the genuine tenderness between the reunited lovers.
Offering solid support as the abandoned spouses, Charlotte Ritchie wrings plenty of humour from the crushed idealism of Sibyl, though Richard Teverson’s Victor (always a difficult role to add interest to) is a little bland – having seen little nuance in his character for most of the play, his dented-by-desertion decency seems to unravel a little too abruptly in the denouement.
What stops this being an outstanding, rather than simply enjoyable, production, is an unwillingness to recognise that, wildly amusing as they are, Amanda and Elyot are actually quite dreadful people – at least part of the joy of the ‘happy ending’ should be relief that the damage their fecklessness and self-absorption wreaks is localised by their reunion: they are no longer free to inflict themselves on anyone else. Contrast this, for example, to the Jonathan Kent production starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor, where their unapologetic awfulness was on full display, but their chemistry and charisma was such that you recognised their flaws and were rooting for them anyway. Defanged by making Elyot a genial grump and Amanda a waspish flake, the piece just becomes a wacky (if witty) rom-com: no less entertaining for that, perhaps, but far less memorable and affecting.
Private Lives is on at Theatre Royal Brighton until 6th February 2016. Click here for tickets.