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London Theatre Reviews

Matthew Macfadyen and Kim Cattrall/ Ph: Nobby Clark



These sparring characters live up to the expectations set by past productions.

Every so often a production of a classic overshadows every revival that comes after it for a decade or so. And so it is with Howard Davis’ 2002 revival of Noel Coward’s divine comedy.
This was an example of how a play preserved in the formaldehyde of nostalgia and parody, can be rinsed down and revived so that even if the setting does not change – Private Lives premiered in 1930 – it feels as if it was written yesterday.
Davies did it partly by taking Coward’s warring and newly wedded couple (though not to each other) down a rung or two on the social ladder. 
Rejecting the clipped English upper-class accent in which the author spoke and his characters usually speak, Lindsay Duncan’s Amanda and Alan Rickman’s Elyot were not so much from the champagne classes of the 1930s as from England’s 21st century gin-and-tonic middle classes.
Coward, who once remarked that the problem with Harold Pinter was that he focused on too low a social class, would probably prefer Richard Eyre’s new production in which Kim Cattrall (still best known as "Sex in the City"'s Samantha) as Amanda is pitch perfect in period posh speak, as is Matthew Macfadyen’s deliciously acidic Elyot.
The evening kicks off in subdued manner. For those who remember Tim Hately’s sumptuous design (this is the final comparison with Davies’ production) Rob Howell’s unremarkable set of the hotel front is a two-dimensional tower of green shutters. Things improve markedly when the divorced couple elope to Amanda’s Parisian gîte – an expensively surreal apartment whose walls fold like paper and which boasts a magnificent three-storey fish tank that comes nicely into play when the explosive Amanda and the incendiary Elyot go toe to toe.
And even during the first act’s balcony scene, where the divorced newlyweds accidentally meet on their honeymoon, it becomes quickly clear that these verbal and physical sparring partners are well matched.
Cattrall can switch from sexy to deadly in the blink of an eye. But it is the mischievous girl detectable behind this woman’s every mood swing that makes Amanda irresistible to all men.
Simon Day as her new husband Victor does English stiff upper lip so well, it is a wonder he can relax it long enough to get his pipe into his mouth. There is good work also from Lisa Dillon as the other spurned spouse, Sybil.
The revelation, however, is with the suave Macfadyen – so smooth you could skate down him. With his slicked hair he looks uncannily like the silent screen star Harry Langdon, who Elyot probably saw a good deal at the cinema of the day. That boyishness is in its own way just as mesmerising as Cattrall's cool-then-scorching temperamental Amanda. So good are they, in fact, that together they force you to forget great productions of the past.