Stuart King

Review: PRIVATE LIVES at Ambassadors Theatre

Noel Coward’s perennial comedy of warring coupledom has been dusted-off for yet another outing in the West End, and it has aged surprisingly well — or perhaps this reviewer has simply begun to feel an alarming sense of nostalgia for the plays which were considered tired old warhorses in his youth!

Private LivesPatricia Hodge and Nigel Havers in Private Lives at the Ambassadors Theatre

Amanda and Elyot, once husband and wife, suffer through an acrimonious divorce then five torturous years apart before reuniting in the South of France whilst each is honeymooning with their respective new spouses Sibyl and Victor. This being Coward, the reunification device is one of location — they find themselves occupying adjoining hotel suites overlooking the French Riviera! The superficially sophisticated (yet ludicrous) backstory served as a ripe premise for Coward’s pithy one-liners and comedy of wayward manners, albeit of the English societal variety which scandalised 1930s London and challenged the religious mores of the day (inadvertently enhancing the actor/playwright’s burgeoning notoriety as a new voice).

Here, Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge are Elyot and Amanda (the roles played by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the very first production over 90 years ago) whilst Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Natalie Walter assume the mantle of the discarded new partners Victor and Sibyl. Holing-up in Amanda’s Paris apartment, the couple’s recently rekindled romance soon gives way to the bickering and point scoring which caused them to part company five years earlier and when their respective jilted lovers arrive for a showdown, politesse and manners are discarded in favour of blunt and unpalatable truths. Smoking jackets and cigarettes abound, long playing shellac records (of Some Day I’ll Find You) get smashed and everyone blames the martinis from the night before for their ill-mannered behaviour.

By today’s standards, it may not be earth shattering drama or remotely challenging for a modern audience, but there undoubtedly remains a quintessential charm to the piece (assuming your sensibilities allow you to overlook the occasional physical slapping and sexist insults). Private Lives runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 25th Nov.