The first act of Noël Coward’s Private Lives ranks amongst the tautest, funniest, impeccably presented bits of theatre ever seen at the Stratford Festival.
With Ken Macdonald’s larger-than-lives, eloquent, French terrace set (with a chiseled motif subtly reinforced after intermission) as the backdrop and Carey Perloff’s knowing direction in this tale of lost loves rekindled, the actors were allowed full rein to portray the pair of couples inadvertently reunited after relationship breakdown and subsequent remarriage.
Meet the Chases: Geraint Wyn Davies at the top of his considerable comedic game playing Elyot; Sibyl, his new bride, given a dutifully charming turn by Sophia Walker who continues to nail every assignment she’s given. Just a few yards away are the Prynne’s: Amanda is done to the nines by Lucy Peacock whose droll delivery and superb body language creates more laughs than even the master playwright/actor might have imagined; her much-younger man, Victor, couldn’t have a better advocate than Mike Shara who most certainly knows that fuelling jokes and situations will pay off in spades rather than—as too many others do—upstaging his co-stars.
The collective pace makes the time evaporate as the pair of honeymooning couples come to the awful realization that their exes are, literally, in the next room.
Anyone who has ever had an awkward moment (married or not) will appreciate the nerve-wracking tension that immediately boils to the surface when coming face-to-face with a past lover sporting a new trophy.
Alas, after the interval, where the suddenly reunited Amanda and Elyot have resumed their relationship after a five-year hiatus (being only married for three years sounds a false note in Coward’s backstory), are seen in a Paris flat learning how to bicker in style all over again. Except in this iteration, both are wise enough to develop a “time out” code that may well keep them from Divorce Court II.
There are still many fun moments (notably past music keeping the lovers’ flames burning bright—at times ably accompanied by Wyn Davies’ not inconsiderable piano skills), but the forward momentum sags compared to the opening salvo. Incredibly, happily, the yuk machine is given new, side-splitting life with the appearance of the maid with an attitude, Louise (Sarah Dodd steals the limelight with her withering looks and acumen brandishing a phallic croissant!).
When—inevitably of course, or there’s no closure, Sibyl and Victor track down their apparent new spouses, the flow improves, but is tarnished with a few glib references of men hitting women—no longer anyone’s idea in this #MeToo era of “Oh that’s all right, it’s only a joke.”
Perhaps if Coward had taken a week rather than just four days to pen this otherwise comedic gem, the wit and wisdom might have risen several notches to become a masterpiece of the fine art of arguing bitterly all the way to carnal bliss. JWR