A thread that runs through the plays of Noel Coward is that he doesn’t give much to work with other than the shallow surface level of his character's worst attributes. Noël Coward wrote a lot ugly characters and didn’t mind if the audience enjoyed them or not. I think that’s why we enjoy his work so much but it’s no easy feat for modern staging. Private Lives is a tragicomedy with some 1930’s glamor sprinkled on top. This is Michael Longhurst’s revival of the play, staged in the 50th anniversary year of Coward’s death.
We open with an improbable meeting between Elyot Chase (Stephen Mangan) and Amanda Prynne (Rachael Stirling). They are both on their honeymoon with new spouses, five years after a messy divorce from each other. This is following accusations of adultery and domestic violence. Somehow against all the odds these couples are staying next to each other and meet on adjacent balconies. It’s very silly but that’s why we laugh at it. The selfish two treat their new partners awfully, typical of Coward’s work.
The set by Hildegard Bechtler is lavish and sweeping throughout. For the first act most of it is hidden undercover and the actors are poised on an art deco balcony. The full set reveal that comes with the duo running away to Paris is wonderfully suited to the era and makes use of the full space.
The show is a mud slinging match between the pair. Some of the text feels outdated in 2023 but the old jokes still land amongst the chaos. This revival feels a little too serious at times, some of the one liners fall by the wayside. Usually the audience are comforted in their laughs because the show is heightened with ridicule but this is a very stripped back natural version. It was hard to tell if this was the actor’s interpretation of the text or if Michael Longhurst wanted to put a sinister twist on the play. There were many laughs from the audience but some of them felt a little unsure due to solemn faces on the stage. A live cellist and violinist underscored the manic moments of love and violence. There is a higher pain level than we usually see in this production. Perhaps this revival is a statement on how dark and intoxicating love can be in a violent relationship.
The initial meeting between the pair was hilarious and the ping pong match of insults across balconies was fun to watch. Their new partners Sybil (Sarah Carmichael) and Victor (Sargon Yelda) are also given plenty of moments and the abandoned pair are also comedic gold.
Once we reached act two the chemistry between Amanda and Elyot began to feel unbalanced. The sexiest scenes were distracted by a slightly awkward and unsure Mangan. The duo have a connection that waivers at times but get to enjoy the characters at their fullest. They can’t live with or without each other. Often reclined in the chaise lounge or arguing over it. The mockery they make of their elite lifestyle and fragile emotions feels rooted in Coward’s humor. Mangan and Prynne pace beautifully between feuding and retreating into silence calling a truce over and over again. It has Mangan playing the piano, Prynne stylishly puffing a cigarette in defiance and the pair dancing in true vintage fashion. Prynne is a full-hearted, provoking Amanda and makes
her a loveable (albeit troubled) character. The fight scenes are so slick but paired with an obsession for each other it makes an uncomfortable watch in 2023.
The production is lined with some great comedy. Including a sketch between the two musicians and the Donmar staff after the interval.
It’s fascinating to watch. It’s a very original take on the classic and an entertaining couple of hours to watch. Michael Longhurst has been brave in his interpretation and gives us more to reflect on than we usually do with this play.
It runs until the 27th May 2023.
Review: Nicole Botha Photo: Marc Brenner