Review: Private Lives

Marriage guidance, according to Noël Coward



Royal Exchange, Manchester

Key players: Imogen Stubbs and Simon Robson are perfectly cast in Private Lives

Key players: Imogen Stubbs and Simon Robson are perfectly cast in Private Lives

It took Noël Coward just four days to dash off this comic gem. And 80 years on it is as fresh, witty and relevant as ever.
It is a bitter-sweet dissection of that most marvellously flawed institution, marriage, through the jaundiced eye of one who, notably, never embraced it.

If the dazzling dialogue occasionally show its age - due only to the inevitable dated quality of some of the language - the sentiments are timeless.

Elyot and Amanda divorced five years ago. They could not live together but, as they discover, nor can they live apart.

Fate has, cruelly, thrown them together as they both honeymoon - with their respective rebound spouses - in adjoining rooms at a French hotel.

There is a delicious moment of anticipation, played for all it is worth as Elyot (Simon Robson) and Amanda (Imogen Stubbs) venture onto their balconies. And then the moment of realisation, that actually they would much rather be together again than manacled to a limp and bickering substitute.

The stiff formality of their new relationships cannot compare with the raging passion they once shared. And so they do a daring midnight flit, their consciences tortured only occasionally by the guilt of leaving behind their replacement partners, and take refuge in Amanda's flat in Paris.

This is the best bit, act two of three. They have ditched the dullards (no disrespect to the excellent Clive Hayward and Joanna Page as their new spouses) and can play out the whole violent spectrum of emotions that make up marriage, divorce and a passion rekindled. Mostly its love or its near-neighbour, hatred. They yo-yo between passionate embrace and all-out fist fights, then back again, as they relive their best and worst moments together. It is tempestuous.

It is also remarkably believable, and fantastically funny. Imogen Stubbs is a vixen, leaping athletically around the stage in her art deco pyjamas, climbing onto the grand piano as she is serenaded by her ex, his fingers almost touching the keys.

She plays Amanda as wild, almost bipolar in her mood swings and elegantly sexy. Robson's Elyot manages to be both impetuous and deadpan at the same time, a bully and a charmer. They have been cast together wonderfully, each as wilful and determined as the other, both great fun and both extremely dangerous. And all the time they know that the dullards will, inevitably, come knocking and they will have to face the music.

This is a play with considerable pedigree. Coward wrote it for Gertrude Lawrence - perhaps the pre-eminent comedy actress of her day - and starred opposite her when it opened in Edinburgh in 1931 and then moved to Broadway. Over the decades there have been countless productions, notably one pairing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1983.

Here, director Michael Buffong keeps things light and bright, but beneath the surfaces lurks something more menacing. There are few holds barred in the fight-and-bite scenes between Amanda and Elyot. Yes you could call it playful, and maybe they did back in the 1930s. Today I think it would be classed as domestic violence.

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    Last updated: 10:54am, March 3 2011