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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud


  Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens/ Ph: Johan Persson

Two tussling couples hurling exhilarating and exquisitely timed invective and insults at each other: Noel Coward’s Private Lives is theatre’s version of Wimbledon mixed doubles. In the first round – sorry, act – of the latest incarnation, one pairing threatens to kill the all-important rhythm by striking the ball too hard. But when Amanda (Anna Chancellor) and Elyot (Toby Stephens) hit their stride, it turns into a championship final.
Coward’s construction is so perfectly symmetrical that its form shapes the comedy. For those who missed the two transatlantic productions of the last decade – Howard Davies’ with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman or Richard Eyre’s more recent revival with Kim Cattrall – this is the play about divorced Elyot and Amanda who, having have neither seen nor spoken to one another in five years, accidentally meet and fall in love again across adjoining balconies on, awkwardly, the first night of their respective second honeymoons. Skedaddling off a Parisian hideaway to rekindle their flame, their dangerous liaison is stymied by the reappearance of their disgusted spouses.
At its best, this transfer of Jonathan Kent’s Chichester Festival Theatre production shimmers. Rooted by the understated chic of Anthony Ward’s elegant design, Chancellor flings herself across chaise lounges, delivering a dazzling high comedy masterclass while sheathed in exquisitely cut costumes. Yet Chancellor’s most devastating weapon is disguise. She constantly catches Elyot unawares with gloriously unexpected, idiosyncratic delivery. Adoring and squabbling with him, none of her lines arrives at the expected pace. She launches speculative lobs with epically droll assurance and slices one-liners past her opponent, leaving him (and the audience) gasping. She charges the net with verbal volleys, deftly touches in bombshell remarks like drop-shots or elicits a roar of approval by winning an argument with a brilliantly timed smash punch line.
Either because it’s in his blood – Stephens’ father Robert famously played the role opposite his mother Maggie Smith – or, more likely, because he’s ignited by Chancellor, Stephens gradually finds his best form. His Elyot is intoxicated not just with Amanda, but with their joint recklessness. Spurred by their rediscovery of love and lust, he grows ever more buoyant, a willful child positively reveling in gleefully bad behaviour. 
Anthony Calf pulls off the rare trick of making stuffed-shirt Victor not stolid but decent. His determinedly fastidious rolling-up of his sleeves to fight Elyot is very funny, as are his failed attempts to keep up with Chancellor’s lightning speed of thought. His bafflement is unusually touching as, trying to keep track of her last remark, he gazes at the furniture from which she uttered the phrase, only to find her on the opposite side of the room devilishly espousing a completely contradictory point of view.
However, for the play to achieve its full depth, all four actors need to be ideally matched. Unfortunately, a shrill Anna-Louise Plowman is miscast as Sybil. Despite being ideally costumed in mimsy lilac frills, she is some distance from the innocent “sweet” thing Elyot has married. Their exchanges are over-acted – her attempting “youth,” him “devilish attraction” – and strident. Their marriage feels doomed from the start, which makes him look foolish and turns his re-kindled attraction to Amanda into a less dramatic foregone conclusion.
Coward's writing is too easily dismissed as merely brittle. But in this, his masterpiece, he wrote a helplessly funny comedy about scalding pain. “Has it ever occurred to you,” says Elyot, “that flippancy might cover a very real embarrassment?" Thanks to the unmissable Chancellor – her baiting of Elyot with Diaghilev-style dancing to "The Rite of Spring" is worth the price of admission – the comedy is in expert hands. But thanks to Kent’s relentless pacing, the production leaves Coward’s underscore of real hurt largely untouched.


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