“You don’t hold any mystery for me darling, do you mind?”
Is there anything left that one can say about Private Lives? That was my abiding feeling on leaving the final show in Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2012 programme despite having had an immensely enjoyable time. The show has proved to be one of Noël Coward’s enduring successes with productions continuing to regularly bless our stages – Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen brought it to the West End a couple of years ago – as they dance the timeless dance of irresistible couple Elyot and Amanda.
The chemistry in Jonathan Kent’s production is palpable with the nigh-on perfect casting of Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens. Chancellor, always a fearsomely good actress, brings a fulsome depth to bear which never lets us forget that there is a lifetime of love and loss that underlies all the comic business which occurs when the divorced couple meet accidentally on a hotel balcony, whilst both on their honeymoons with new partners. And Toby Stephens brings an unexpectedly delicious levity to his Elyot, public schoolboy through and through but charmingly warm too and both display perfect comic precision.
They’re very well supported by their new spouses – Anthony Calf and Stephens’ real-life wife, Anna-Louise Plowman (who as it turns out, I still haven’t forgiven for being annoying beyond belief in Holby City…) – and Maggie McCarthy’s maid. It all looks a dream in the Minerva, thanks to Anthony Ward’s designs, and the overall impact is so good that one suspects if schedules work out, this could easily make the leap into the West End.
So an excellent piece of theatre all round which has gone a long way to restoring my faith in Coward, after a deeply uninspiring experience at the recent Hay Fever in the West End. Part of me wonders though if Coward is a little over-produced here – perhaps less so with Private Lives, whose explorations of couples and the masks we all wear to simply get along in life remain timeless and at times exceptionally funny – but generally as a playwright, he does seem a little resistant to different interpretations and so there is rarely that revelatory kick of finding something new in the familiar. But rest assured that Stephens and Chancellor provide it here.