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.
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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