amanda and Elyot  Divorced . .  married . . . bliss, Patricia Hodge as Amanda  and Nigel Havers as Elyot. Pictures: Tristram Kenton

Private Lives

Malvern Theatres


When it comes to comedies of manners Noël Coward is right up there with Oscar Wilde, laying into the higher reaches of society with a rapier-like wit but, above all, with a glorious sense of wonderful, laugh out loud, fun.

The lives might have been private once but Coward ensures they do not remain so as we open one evening in 1930 with a view of two balconied rooms overlooking the bay in an up-market hotel in the up-market Normandy resort of Deauville.

In the background the orchestra are playing Coward’s Some Day I’ll Find You, a recurring musical theme through the play.

On the left we have the urbane Elyot, divorced five years ago, celebrating the first night of his honeymoon to new bride Sibyl.

By chance, on the right we have the equally elegant Amanda, also divorced some time ago, on the first night of her honeymoon to new husband Victor.

Now if you were to be told Elyot and Amanda just happened to be divorced same place, same day, same time you get an idea of where this might be heading. On their balcony Sibyl keeps asking about Elyot’s first wife, which he starts to find irritating, and when they head back into their room, Amanda appears in her balcony with Victor and is becoming equally annoyed by his asking about her first husband.

All amusing enough, but it is when first wife Amanda and first husband Elyot come face to face and realise they are hotel neighbours that the real fun begins. One thing, and two cocktails, leads to another and the smouldering embers of past passion burst into flame again, bright enough for the pair to elope, or whatever word describes newly married exes doing a runner back to the past.

amanda and elyot on balcony

Amanda and Elyot meet again after five years on their separate honeymoons in the same Deauville hotel. 

So, they hightail it back to Amanda’s Paris flat, without a word, leaving their new bride and groom of less than a day waiting forlornly downstairs in the hotel for their new partners to join them for dinner. Its going to be a long wait . . .

Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge are just wonderful as Elyot and Amanda. Private Lives is at heart a romantic comedy, and the pair manage to make both elements, the romance and the humour, sparkle.

Here are a couple who are madly and passionately in love, a couple who cannot bear to live apart . . . the only problem being that they cannot bear to live together. Bickering is the problem, industrial strength, world beating bickering.

They can even bicker about bickering. They find a solution of a sort by using a code word, Solomon Isaacs, quickly shortened to Sollocks, (stop sniggering at the back!) which once uttered in the midst of arguing, ends all quarrelling and demands silence for two minutes, by which time everything will have calmed down.

Two minutes on stage without a word is an eternity yet the duo managed to make it wonderfully funny while, when they are talking, their exchanges are a comic delight. Every nuance, every witty remark, even innocent answers, are exploited unreservedly for comic effect with glances, pauses, asides and even throwaway lines getting the treatment, yet it is all done so naturally, so matter of factly, that it never seems forced or staged, it just leaves you laughing.

victor and sibyl

 Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Victor and Natalie Walker as Sybil

It is all done with charm and exquisite timing, with Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Victor and Natalie Walter as Sibyl, the perfect foils.

Victor is a rather pompous sort, if one is honest, a somewhat humourless chap, bit wet in a sort of manly way, besotted with Amanda and, one suspects, rather jealous and frightened of her past with Elyot

To be fair Coward does not give Bruce-Lockhart a lot to play with as Victor and you suspect his rather stiff character is there merely as a vehicle to bring Amanda into play.

Sibyl, meanwhile, is an attractive, gay young thing. Wildly in love with Elyot, and one suspect, being married, and is interested in not only Elyot’s past wife but how she and Amanda compare. Coward always seemed to like his female characters so Walter has more to get her teeth into with Sibyl who is a bit more rounded than dull old Victor.

You know from the off, though, that these new unions are hardly matches made in heaven and are doomed to compete with a more passionate past, a competition fails to last the day as our exes fly off to gay Paree.

It all comes to a head when Victor and Sibyl arrive at Amanda’s Paris bolthole early one morning, a flat perhaps not looking its best after a traditional Amanda/Elyot bickering match involving broken vases, gramophone records (remember them?) smashed over heads and their usual marital mayhem the night before.

They are greeted by the maid Louise, played in perfect French by Aïcha Kossoko, who incidentally, trained for some time in Paris. They discover Amanda and Elyot are in separate rooms and are each planning to walk out on the other in a sort of divorce rerun.

But first, breakfast, which turns into a frosty, gentile, polite sniping affair. Victor and Elyot come close(ish) to fisticuffs, Victor much the closer it must be said, then there is a delightful sequence as Victor and Sibyl lay into each other with Amanda and Elyot, side be side on a sofa, munching brioche rolls, watching the developing row as one would a tennis match as insults fly from side to side.

You hardly take in the barbs just laugh at the wonderfully staged scene and as the row continues we see Sibyil and Victor taking over the mantle of bickering couple as Coward resorts to one of his favoured play endings with our original warring couple sneaking out, unnoticed, quietly and still together, leaving behind a replica of their own relationship.

This is the first production by The Nigel Havers Production Company, and it sets a high bar for future productions to match. Everything from acting down, exudes quality starting with Simon Higlett’s sets. The imposing, stage filling hotel façade with its adornments and rooms above and below looks the part while the Paris flat is a treasure trove of 1930’s Art Deco from rich red walls to a wonderful hanging golden chandelier or ornament in the background, hardly necessary, but adding valuable authenticity giving the scene life.

Costumes too, which can be a weak point in 20th century interwar settings, had an air of realism from chic gowns cut on the bias down to the baggy trousers in otherwise elegant suits.

It is all brought together by director Christopher Luscombe with the result this is one of the best versions of Private Lives, indeed any Coward play, I have seen. It might be frothy and lightweight, but so what, it is a splendid celebration of Coward’s marvellous wit and sense of fun, it is guaranteed to give you plenty of laughs and will send you home with a smile on your face. A welcome bit of escapism in the troubled world we live in. So what’s not to like? Catch it while you can. To 09-04-22

Roger Clarke


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