Monday, April 22

Private Lives – Donmar Warehouse

Michael Longhurst’s revival of Noel Coward’s classic play downplays the lightness and wit of Coward’s dialogue and emphasises the violence of the relationship between the two main characters. Elliott and Amanda.

The plot is familiar: two honeymooning couples happen to occupy adjoining balconies in their seaside resort, and unfortunately one of the members of each of the couples used to be married to the other. When they discover this and overcome their initial shock and horror, they realise that their underlying love for each other is much stronger than they have for the nonentities whom they have recently married.

The first scene takes place on the two balconies and the rest of the play takes place in a Paris apartment, to which Elliott and Amanda have escaped from their new spouses. The Donmar setting had the two balconies at the back of the playing area with a large black cloth obviously covering the furniture for the subsequent Paris scenes. Nevertheless, the transition when it came, was both effective and surprising.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Stephen Mangan’s portrayal of Elliott had nothing of Coward’s sophisticated charm. Indeed, from the very beginning, one suspected that this was a man with serious personality issues, and his rapid deterioration into anger and violence was not a surprise.  Rachael Stirling as Amanda provided a lively effervescent characterisation. Their two unfortunate spouses are roles which one feels that Coward had not spent much time on: Laura Carmichael as Sibyl managed a portrayal which had more depth than is often the case, but one felt for Sargon Yelda trying to wring a believable character out of the hapless Victor. The use of two musicians, Faolieannn Cunningham on violin and Harry Napier on cello, added atmospheric music and a diverting cameo during the interval.

The attempt by Longhurst to give the play a more modern, harsher edge was only partly successful.  Although it was funny in parts, much of the humour and wit of Coward’s dialogue were lost. The funniest scene was that over breakfast when the four characters tried to reconcile themselves and each other to the new, very uncomfortable situation in which they had found themselves. The violence between Amanda and Elliott was both very well done and really rather shocking. This is an abusive relationship and the depth and intensity of the violence in this production with the rapid frequent transformations from hate to infatuation made it less credible.

While this was a creditable attempt to try to do something different with a familiar period piece, I was left with the feeling that Coward is best treated with a lighter hand.

Playing until 27th May,

Reviewer: Paul Ackroyd

Reviewed: 14th April 2023

North West End UK Rating: ★★★