Private Lives

Rating *****
Reviewed by Tony Peters

The Chichester Festival continues its remarkable run of West End transfers with director Jonathan Kent’s faultless revival of Noël Coward’s romantic comedy.

Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor star as divorced couple Elyot and Amanda who unexpectedly find themselves occupying adjoining rooms in a French hotel while on honeymoon with new spouses (Anna-Louise Plowman and Anthony Calf). Realising they still have feelings for each other, Elyot and Amanda rapidly abscond to her Paris flat leaving their new partners high and dry. But it soon becomes obvious that while this free-spirited pair cannot live apart, they still have trouble living together and the relationship second time round lurches between the intense moments of love and hate (and even violence) that drove them to divorce.

Stephens and Chancellor are wonderful as Elyot and Amanda, with performances pitched just about perfectly and superb comic timing. But while the play belongs to these two, Anthony Calf and Anna-Louise Plowman as the new partners unfortunate enough to be dragged into the orbit of this crazy and self-centered pair are certainly not overshadowed.

The writing as you’d expect is masterful: brilliantly witty, knowing and modern — it could even still be described as edgy, not bad for an 83-year-old play. When Elyot justifies his infidelities by saying that he’s a man but intimating Amanda’s were unacceptable behaviour for a woman, a frisson went through the audience. But this was Coward commenting on the hypocrisy of the age rather than agreeing with what would have been the largely held view in society. Incredibly, he wrote Private Lives in just three days after sketching out the initial idea while laid-up with influenza in Shanghai.

With the work of a supreme wordsmith, four sublime performances, Kent’s superbly nuanced direction and Anthony Ward’s sumptuous design, evenings in the theatre don’t come much better than this and it left me smiling like an idiot for sometime afterwards.

Written by Noël Coward

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Elyot Chase​Toby Stephens
Amanda Pryne​Anna Chancellor
Victor Pryne​Anthony Calf
Sybil Chase​Anna-Louise Plowman
Louise​Sue Kelvin