What’s left to be done with or said about Private Lives? After The Importance of Being Earnest it must be the most famous comedy in the English language, it drips a heady combination of epigrams, theatrical folklore, and night sweats having been written in three days during a bout of ‘flu in a grand hotel in Shanghai.
Allegedly since Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence opened the new Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road in 1930 with this bitchy and improbable coincidence of injudiciously-remarried divorcees colliding on honeymoon on adjacent hotel balconies, there hasn’t been a single night when it hasn’t been performed somewhere on the planet.
We’ve had countless London revivals too, often distorted by crowdpleasing castings like him off Harry Potter or her off Sex and the City so it’s refreshing that Jonathan Kent’s Chichester transfer features brilliant actors untainted by recent soap stardom or wizarding franchise. Toby Stephens would have been three years old when his parents Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens starred in it at the Queen’s Theatre next door (at the height of the acrimony leading to their divorce), so it’s uncanny how much he looks like his father and acts like his mother in the same play. His suave exterior is devilishly undermined by a wilful schoolboy determination to shock. He has great hair. You’d definitely go out with him.
The role of Amanda could have been written for Anna Chancellor. She has exactly the right combination of angularity and nasal hauteur, and the quick-witted intelligence to make Coward’s stone-sharpened aphorisms sound like natural conversation. She and Stephens verbally richochet off each other perfectly, but the staged fights need either better staging or more rehearsal before they are the equal of the sparking dialogue. When the brittle exchange is stilled for a moment, and they behave romantically to each other, it's heart-stoppingly believable.
Because it’s such a pacy production, with lines clipped and the romantic duet Some Day I’ll Find You demoted to an intermittent underscore in the interests of a 2-hour running time, it’s all the more noticeable when the energy drops in the second half.
As Elyot’s mousy and girlishly doting second wife Sibyl, Toby Stephens’ real-life partner Anna-Louise Plowman is outstanding and infused with far greater depth than we’ve seen before. She has the fewest good lines but makes the most of them and her worm-turning opportunity in the closing scene is entirely worth the wait.
Private Lives’ longevity, and the determination of revivals to stick to its time and settings defies analysis: it’s a play in which the heroes are the vicious and sarcastic characters, while the well-intentioned and kindly are shat upon. It almost celebrates domestic violence. The dialogue is so bitchily dismissive and camp that it sounds just like the gay banter you’d hear any evening in Soho. In fact, with same sex marriage on the political agenda again it could be time for an all-male rotating four-hander (we hope that’s not an unwitting euphemism) with Simon Russell Beale and Rupert Everett queuing up to see who gets to be Amanda on any given night.
Private Lives plays at the Gielgud Theatre, 33 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 6AR until 21 September. Tickets range from £10-£53.50. privateliveswestend.com to find out more. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket.