The dangers of playing the subtext as the text loom large in Lucy Bailey's Hampstead Theatre revival of Private Lives and were evident well before an impromptu alarm beset the opening night performance, necessitating the rewinding of a crucial scene in the first act. Bailey has distinguished herself of late as an unusually ferocious, sharp-eyed director of lesser-known Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus), so one had every reason to be excited about her take on this most seminal of Noel Coward plays: a comedy that seems to have been written to embody the adage about people whom you can't live without but whom you also cannot live with.
One problem, at least for those with memories that stretch back not very many years, is that Howard Davies very recently mined this same play for every bit of available affect in a surpassingly elegant and moving production that brought its distaff lead, Lindsay Duncan, every Broadway prize going, and rightly so. On the other hand, directors in the UK are always competing against one another - the Shakespeare industry implicitly depends on that very fact. And as if to complement her recent Birmingham revival of The Lady From the Sea, whose leading lady Claire Price functions in the same capacity here, Bailey has treated Coward's three-act erotic push-me-pull-you as if it were Ibsen, complete with candles to amplify the mood in the final act, which we are told repeatedly takes place in the morning. Why, then, does the sky beyond Katrina Lindsay's not particularly evocative letterbox design look pitch black?
Even still, Coward could more than withstand a bit of archetypal director's theater if he were suitably cast, which in three out of four instances, this staging, sad to say, is not. Whereas Davies and his stars Duncan and Alan Rickman were alive to qualities of wit and mournfulness attendant upon this script in almost equal measure, Bailey's ensemble replaces insouciance and longing with notable dollops of anger, not least from Jasper Britton's Elyot, who seems to have taken with savage literalness his character's oft-quoted suggestion that "women should be struck regularly, like gongs." Hey, give the man a glass or two of bubbly and watch him morph into Billy Bigelow from Carousel.
Britton is an unusually alert actor and, hence,always compelling to watch, which makes his misfire here continually fascinating even as it limits the impact of the play. (Interestingly, this is the show for which he forsook the West End transfer of Nicholas de Jongh's Plague Over England, which reaches the Duchess Theatre later this month without Britton's first-rate turn as John Gielgud.) When he takes his seat at the piano, having returned to Paris with ex-wife Amanda after chancing upon her on honeymoon with their hapless second partners, this Elyot laces into the music-making with feral energy. And while it is certainly valid to communicate the extent to which this bon viveur's mots justes are fueled by often self-directed rage, it was Coward's genius to cloak these barely constrained energies with charm. Lose that and Sir Noel's singular appeal begins to fade.
It's far trickier to decode what co-star Price - another fine actor in other circumstances such as the Ralph Fiennes Brand
- is doing with Amanda, beyond striking abundantly self-conscious poses and sporting hair that only begins to loosen up once her character does, too. Amanda really is an exceptional creation: a woman alive not just to her own narcissistic folly but to the feelings of others who finds all sorts of unexpectedly sympathetic responses in, for instance, the cheap music that stands in contrast to this ostensibly frivolous wom