Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Christopher Luscombe, Designer and Costumes Simon Higlett, Lighting Mark Jonathan, Composer Nigel Hess, Sound Jeremy Dunn, Fight Director Malcom Ranson Casting Durector Sarah Bird.
Till April 16th
Private Lives will play on till the universe cinders. It’s an indestructible play about superficially superficial people deeply in love, lust and loathing with each other, with little else to detain them save acerbic worldliness and memorable wit. ‘Very flat, Norfolk’, ‘the potency of cheap music’ ‘blowing shrimps through her ear trumpet’ and other one-liners have passed into the language.
As has the frisson of a formerly married couple on honeymoon with their new partners, who run into each other and run off with each other too.
Elyot and Amanda’s cleverness doesn’t so much hide their shrimp-and-anemone co-dependency as heighten it in a celebration of erotic fireworks that can’t possibly stay in the bedroom, on the sofa, under the piano or anywhere else they might be discovered: tearing each other’s clothes or skin off, or both.
No production with competent actors can disappoint. If you’re seeing it for the first time it’ll entrance you; we’ve not had a production at Theatre Royal since February 2016 with Tom Chambers as Elyot. And now we have a starry duo.
Nigel Havers has formed his eponymous company with this as its first production and himself as Elyot. On a trailer he’s asked himself why he’s not played this part, and he has a point, but the answer’s ready to hand. Havers has the airiness, poise and dry wit of Elyot, as well as a more recently-cultivated caddishness on Corrie. He delivers lines straight from Elyot’s class, and he’s mischievous. You relish his nuance and delivery.
He lacks though Elyot’s reserves of passion, his cat-like playing-back of Amanda, a hint of feline darkness, even cruelty. Though the production’s cleverly designed to play up the moments in Coward that allow for those not in the virginal flush of youth – Elyot is explicitly ‘much older’ than Sybil, remember – there’s also the lack of fire and energy in the second act with the lovers alone. It should spring and toy with you, hiss and leap. There’s quite a bit of purring and pawing, but this act hangs fire, with a notable pause during the two minutes ‘solux’ pact.
You simply don’t believe this couple’s on a knife-edge of sex, violence and sex. But there’s frissons still. The lines about being hit strikes a modern audience more than it used to and this one responds with gasps: we don’t condone it now. And the couple can deliver Coward’s language – half the battle.
Patricia Hodge’s Amanda has the singular advantage of a beautiful period voice. Hodge brings an authentic yearning to ‘Someday I’ll find you’ and the meeting between her and Havers is electrifying for those first few minutes. Indeed the first act is as poised for action as the second is a wind-down. Hodge like Havers possesses the authentic hauteur and – additionally – a touch of malice and rage Coward demands. Hers is a less savage Amanda, though, more comfortable perhaps in being glacially polite to the other two characters who just happen to be married to this couple. Which is why the third act with all five characters really takes off, and is a delight.
Natalie Walter’s excellent as Sibyl, playing an immature, limited but not unsympathetic young woman who’s been taken up as a compensatory morsel by Elyot for all the wrong reasons. Walter presents a superbly glazed front that threatens to unhinge in contact with real passion she knows only a little about. She’s still disappointed with Elyot’s pecks as excuses for kisses. Walter suggests warmth, someone shocked out of her conventions who at the end lays about her past self with a pillow.
Coward’s slightly more generous to the part of Victor (created by the 23-year-old Laurence Oliver). Though ox-like to begin with, he’s given the scene with Amanda to show his mettle and generosity, and a comic fight-scene with Elyot as he attempts to go through the motions of outrage. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart makes the most of this: he’s ox-like and boorish, even roaring earlier on, with even more outmoded notions of sexual equality than Elyot. He’s also funny facing off Elyot. But Bruce-Lockhart conveys the beating heart of Victor’s decency.
Aicha Kossoko’s virtuoso Louise brings us a maid in coruscating French who’s seen it all, doesn’t respect any of it, wearily efficient, just that bit scene-grabbing for her small role. She deserves her separate applause.
Directed consummately for the most part by Christopher Luscombe who’s sovereign in this territory, the production boasts design and costumes by Simon Higlett. Amanda’s white trouser-suit doesn’t really convey the panache of the trailer costume, surprisingly, and it seems inhibiting. Everything else is neatly in period – Sybil’s and Victor’s costumes are notably bright, Elyot’s restrained.
The set’s sumptuous: pinkish white Sorrento facades boast three storeys all winsomely lit, with the second and third act of Amanda’s Parisian flat done up in red deco that fairly throbs with Egyptian quotes and fine gilt-threaded gestures including two great Ionian columns and three gossamer chandeliers; with the usual white Bauhaus sofa, light chairs and black grand piano upstage we hear (recorded and mimed to). Though it’s the gramophone stage left that’s ready to provide a smash hit.
Mark Jonathan’s lighting is a discreetly realist affair: both in the Sorrento evening, with six rooms lit; and blue dawn penetrating those huge windows upstage in the Parisian set. Ideal in fact.
Cheap music? No we have luxury: composer Nigel Hess stylishly arranges the Coward classics and a few other melodies: you can hear every strand of the recorded echt-Palm Court ensemble. There’s classic, contained sound from Jeremy Dunn, with that brief spat overseen by fight director Malcom Ranson.
Private Lives can never disappoint: it plays itself and as far as it’s a work of verbal tennis this production won’t pall either, except a little in the second act. It’s what under those lacerating tongues that drives Amanda and Elyot though; it’s why we care and why this play’s a perennial.