Approaching its centenary year, Noël Coward’s Private Lives, is revived at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Michael Longhurst. One of several plays written at the time which addressed the changing divorce laws, this easy going comedy might feel a little dated but still manages to showcase some sparkling wit.
Elyot and Amanda are divorced; both have remarried (younger spouses) and are now enjoying their respective honeymoons. What they didn’t plan was to be sharing the same terrace at a French seaside resort hotel.
For much of the first act, most of Hildegard Bechtler’s set design is undercover, with all of the action taking place on the art deco balcony. When Elyot and Amanda realise they are still in love, and run off to Amanda’s Paris apartment, the full set is revealed.
The couple spend four days together making love and fighting, often using their safe word – Solomon Isaacs, later shortened to ‘Sollocks’ to try and prevent further acrimony. By the time jilted lovers Sibyl (Laura Carmichael) and Victor (Sargon Yelda) catch up with them, Elyot and Amanda are at each other’s throats, quite literally.
The violence was shocking when Private Lives first opened, and it remains shocking now, though probably for different reasons. Yet you’re always aware that this is a comedy, the couple can’t live without each other, they just can’t seem to live with each other either.
The concept bleeds through to the music too, with an amusing little skit played out between the Cellist (Harry Napier) and the Violinist (Faoileann Cunningham) at the opening of act two. Many of the wittier lines come from Elyot’s flippancy, which annoys Victor no end, and Stephen Mangan carries it all off with an effervescent suaveness that’s easy to enjoy.
Rachael Stirling’s portrayal of Amanda is strong and commanding, delivering scathing lines with clean efficiency, and the scene with the coffee and brioche is beautifully done. Not all of Coward’s comedy has stood the test of time, but considering the age of the play, that’s hardly surprising.
This is a chic revival of Noël Coward’s comedy of manners; despite the rather thin plot, Michael Longhurst has teased out all of the redeeming features of Private Lives, and given them the prominence required to make this a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours.
Private Lives is at Donmar Warehouse until 27th May 2023