PRIVATE LIVES by Noel Coward
Corn Exchange, Market Place, Wallingford, OX10 0EG
17-20 July 2019
Private Lives is one of Coward's masterpieces. Witty and biting, set in an enchanted social world, the piece transports us to a place where words are what matter most. Although much of the text speaks of feelings, we get a decidedly attenuated range of emotions from the main characters. Whatever tragedies one may be living through, what matters is to offer it to the world as an aphorism or a humorous aside. It's not how we do things nowadays, of course. But, by golly, that man Coward had a way with words, and it is his use of the English language that keeps a play such as Private Lives in the theatrical repertoire almost 90 years after it was written.
The plot of Private Lives is straightforward enough. Elyot and Amanda divorced five years ago and both have recently remarried. Each new couple has booked in for their honeymoon at the same French hotel. The new marriages are clearly creaking already, and when Elyot and Amanda bump into each other, on the hotel terrace, old passions are rekindled and they run away together, abandoning their new spouses. The remainder of the play takes place in Amanda's Parisian flat, where she and Elyot bicker and make up, then bicker and make up. Rinse and repeat. Victor and Sibyl, their abandoned spouses, turn up and demand to know what is going on. More bickering, fighting, spanking and witty repartee, followed by Elyot and Amanda slipping out of the flat to escape.
So did Sinodun Players do justice to the piece in Marilyn Johnstone's production? The spare set of the opening act caught the sophisticated glamour of Coward's world. White, diaphanous curtains and four simple white blocks (doing service as tables and chairs), redolent of a set in a Busby Berkeley musical, took us to the terrace of the hotel. The thing about such a stylised set was that it made the posing that characterises the principals seem perfectly natural.
Amanda's Paris flat was, by contrast, a busy place to be. It was a symmetrical, split-level set with enough furniture for the characters to drape themselves over, and no less than four doors (shining white against the blacks), but which did not end up crowding the stage. Congratulations to the set-building team for their work.
The costumes were spot on, reproducing the glamour of the period. It's easy to imagine that all one needs for a piece of this period are dinner jackets and posh frocks, but it can be done well or poorly, and this was the former.
Jay Aggett turned in a strong performance as Amanda; brittle, conflicted, and dancing on a knife-edge of emotion. Her assured stage presence provided us with an Amanda who was a satisfying foil to Elyot (Graham Watt) with his witty rapier-like attacks. The temptation with a Noel Coward play is to play the leading man like Noel Coward. In my opinion, this is something, generally, to be avoided. But such is the magnetic pull of The Master, that Graham's performance leant a little too much towards impersonation. Not that it wasn't done with competence. I just feel that he should have created something more his own. An enjoyable performance nonetheless, with good, understated delivery of some waspish lines.
Amanda's husband Victor has really been had. He has married a woman that he is besotted with (out of his league even), but who does not love him in return (unless you redefine the meaning of the word as Amanda seems to do). Now she has run off with her former lover. Victor is outraged, offended, self-righteous, pompous and a bit pathetic. Will Lidbetter gave a lovely performance of a character that we, the audience, should feel sympathy for, but don't really. The physical contrast between the two actors (Graham and Will) reinforced this. Graham's tall, slim, languorous figure towered over Will's shorter, stockier physique that was beautifully puffed up when it needed to be.
Natalie Davies was an equally distressed Sibyl who finds common cause with Victor. Tearful and confused, resentful and down-to-earth, Natalie's characterisation gave us a woman who was out of her depth in the sophisticated world of Elyot and Amanda, but still bloody annoyed at their behaviour and not afraid to say so.
Finally, a brief mention of Jean Simmons' cameo role as Louise the French maid. Director Marilyn Johnstone efficiently employed her as a member of the stage crew. Louise came on at the beginning of the second act and moved round furniture and cleared up in character, playing it for laughs with stumbles, hacking coughs and the like. Better than watching the black t-shirt brigade.
This was a thoroughly entertaining production of a modern classic. It remained true to the spirit of the play, delivering the wit and humour of Noel Coward with an assured touch. Congratulations to all concerned.
'ALLO, 'ALLO! By Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft
Abingdon Drama Club (ADC)
Unicorn Theatre, 18 Thames Street, Abingdon, OX14 3HZ
26-29 June 2019
The knockwurst, the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies, the ridiculous British airmen, the pantomime villain Herr Flick of the Gestapo, the camp Lieutenant Gruber and, of course, Rene Artois and the crew – they're all here. Wound up and ready to go for our entertainment and amusement. Director Terry Atkinson's production of this national favourite played it with a straight bat, aiming for the 'Allo, 'Allo! that we all know and love. Long story short, he succeeded.
There was effective casting, especially with Michael Ward capturing the languid, laissez-faire attitude of Rene that we all recall from Gorden Kaye's original TV performance. Likewise, Lynne Smith proved an hilarious Edith with some quite deliberately awful cabaret singing. But it was a strong cast generally and ensemble playing was the key to the comedy.
'Allo, 'Allo! is a pantomime in all but name, but without the audience participation. Large, overdrawn two-dimensional characters that either play up to stereotypes or create some of their own – this is exactly what an audience intent on simple fun is looking for, and we were not disappointed.
In the programme notes, Atkinson was at pains to disassociate the production from any thought crimes because of the 'dated' humour. It's a sad sign of our times that he felt the need to do so. He needn't have worried. I think he overestimates the credence the general public ascribe to the phobias and isms that the majority of us are allegedly guilty of because of our genetics. Inventing a neologism does not make a thing true. Switching off from 'reality' and losing ourselves in farce, as Atkinson wisely suggests, actually brings out a deeper, greater human truth that transcends the shallow labelling exercise that currently threatens freedom of artistic expression.
As with Shakespeare, being faithful to the text will take you a long way to success with this show, and the humour was played in the spirit in which Lloyd and Croft wrote it. Although the characters are well established, right down to the tiniest of nuances, that does not equate to a 'painting-by-numbers' approach by the actors. Craft and skill are still required. I particularly enjoyed Jon Crowley's Le Clerc, Tony Green's Lieutenant Gruber and Tim Mean's Crabtree. But the remainder of the cast all caught the essence of their characters pretty well.
Michael Ward did a sterling job with set design, transforming the Unicorn Theatre into Cafe Artois with a layout that meant the stage never felt crowded. Costumes were excellent, although with the inevitable compromises: I chuckled at the fact that Captain Bertorelli's (Duncan Blagrove) hat was actually a tricorn hat. It had the requisite black feathers on it, you see.
A nice feature during the many scene changes was the projection of tongue-in-cheek comments, in French, above the stage, such as 'not another scene change!'. Of course, you can get away with being ruder in a foreign language than in English; an opportunity that was not missed.
On the evening I went, there was a full house of happy laughing customers. ADC have recently put on a number of more serious productions, tackling deeper subjects that I've enjoyed. This provided a contrast with straightforward popular entertainment and was none the worse for that.
Photo credit: ADC
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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