Theatre Review - Private Lives

In the past, Noël Coward’s Private Lives has been referred to as “a comedy of manners”, which feels rather misleading given the undercurrent of abuse that runs through it.

Opening on the French Riviera, a surprise encounter on adjoining hotel balconies rekindles the passion of divorcees Elyot (Stephen Mangan) and Amanda (Rachael Stirling). The problem is that they are there on honeymoon with their new spouses Sibyl (Laura Carmichael) and Victor (Sargon Yelda).

Elyot and Amanda, cynical and reckless, appear well-suited. Motivated by desire and careless about other’s feelings they quickly revive their relationship and flee the hotel for an impassioned few nights in Amanda’s Paris apartment.

Knowing that they may eventually be tracked down, the pair throw all caution to the wind: making love, drinking brandy and dancing the Charleston at all hours.

Although stunningly staged by Michael Longhurst, it’s a challenge to balance scenes of domestic abuse in a play that’s also known for its wit and humour. Many audience members audibly gasped when scathing verbal attacks turned physical.

At times, Longhurst’s interpretation of Coward’s 1930 play feels closer to Edward Albee’s 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf about another dysfunctional and self-destructive marriage.

Mangan and Stirling are absolutely mesmerising in the central roles and their central scene together is electric. Elyot is essentially a bully, but Mangan is glitteringly dangerous, highlighting his character’s charisma, while Stirling’s Amanda offers the perfect foil – quick-witted, glamourous and equally damaged. Both are used to getting their own way.

This is in stark contrast to their rejected partners who appear altogether more reasonable, although Sibyl is drippy and clingy and Victor a pompous ass. But when pushed, they too reveal a propensity towards emotional manipulation and violent abuse.

The Donmar’s production may not appeal to Coward purists, but I found myself engrossed by the hedonistic spectacle of two people behaving badly and the trail of destruction they leave in their wake.

Until May 27

Originally published by Islington Tribune