Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ play review: Every line is sharp

Noel Coward’s Private Lives, aged just over 85 and showing no signs of maturing, fizzes onto stage for a tour (playing in Brighton through until Saturday 6 February) prior to the West End.

It’s the one where two recent divorcees Amanda and Elyot run into each other while celebrating their brand new and ill-advised honeymoons, and armed with equal amounts of selfishness and charming one-liners, decide to run away together to Paris.

Some of the text may give modern audiences pause – comedy domestic violence or Amanda’s mild fetish for gentlemen of ethnicity – but for a play that speaks a great deal about the preference for women to be ‘feminine’, it’s remarkably progressive. When Victor (Richard Teverson) assures his new wife that he’ll always treat her with respect, her response – ‘That’s right,’ – is delivered not with giddy coquettishness, but as an unqualified command.

Private Lives

It’s not long before it becomes very clear that the evening belongs to Laura Rogers as Amanda Prynne. She slinks and prowls across the stage as a woman who enjoys people to the point of consuming them, but can quickly become rather bored of them. She allows herself to be flirted with at any opportunity (whether she reciprocates is her own business), and has a pithy response for anyone wanting to shame her with the idea that it doesn’t suit for women to be promiscuous: ‘It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous’.

Whenever Rogers is spitting acid drops and draping herself languorously over either furniture or men, the show lifts. This is somewhat to do with Coward’s script, as Amanda gets all of the best lines – in fact, both of the women get the lion’s share of the zingers – but it does mean that Tom Chambers’ Elyot Chase is repositioned as the weaker sex, constantly playing catch up.

His best lines are delivered face front, like asides to camera, while his rants are borne out of hysteria rather than asserting his masculinity.  That said, it’s a performance with a lot of froth, and Chambers is not afraid to let Elyot look ridiculous. It’s just that in this marriage and divorce of equals, it’s abundantly clear which Chase is doing the chasing.

Charlotte Ritchie charms and flaps with energy as Sibyl, occasionally letting us see the steel beneath, and it’s obvious that Elyot’s assertion of her – that she’ll soon be over the divorce(s) – is accurate. In reality, there should probably be a finer balance of strength between all four lovers to keep us guessing who will end up with who, but the production, like everyone else, is somewhat besotted by Amanda Prynne.

It’s a play written in fine fountain pen, performed in broad crayon: every line sharp, each moment colourful.

Performed on Monday 1 February 2016 at Brighton Theatre Royal.

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