What an incredibly enjoyable night I had at the theatre, attending the third and final offering in the season for Swanage Repertory Company.
The Noel Coward classic Private Lives has stood the test of time since its first performance at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh in 1930- entertaining audiences for nearly a century. This incarnation did not disappoint, and it was a delight to hear the peals of laughter around the auditorium from locals and holidaymakers alike.
The farcical comedy of manners was conceived as a play in three acts, which is how it was presented here. Unaccustomed as I am to a play with two intervals, I actually rather enjoyed the fact there were three shorter segments to savour than the more usual play of two halves, and every act was splendidly presented and enjoyed by all.
As has become a bit of a trademark for this company, the set design by Gemma Randall was beautifully presented, depicting first, adjoining hotel balconies in Deauville, then a bijou pied a terre in gay Paris of the 30’s. And 1930’s it was – from the clipped accents to the sumptuous costume and furnishings, as befits Coward’s flowery language and gifted repartee.
I had not realised quite how “of it’s time” much of the prose would seem in this day and age, with its sexism- “certain women should be struck regularly, like a gong”, intentionally comic ignorance of world culture, and depiction of a couple physically “fighting like panthers”- bearing in mind Coward himself was actually fairly progressive in his views and lifestyle, so it was definitely the right choice here to present it as a period piece stylistically.
Under the expert direction of Guy Slater, the wit of Coward flies off the page, and the language crackles along as sparks fly between our warring couples, brilliantly portrayed by Beric Livingstone, Katherine Mount, Emma Mulkern and Kevin Burke and supported with an extremely comic cameo performance by new graduate Anna Lewis.
Beric’s matinee idol Valentino-esque good looks and dastardly delivery make his Elyot a charmer you love to hate. For all his outlandish and beastly behaviour toward poor Sybil in particular (portrayed brilliantly by Emma Mulkern in her third season for Swanage Rep) you cannot help but fall slightly in love with him. Katherine Mount as Amanda is so enigmatic, one almost forgives her “vile tempered, wicked woman” treatment of the long-suffering Victor, more than ably portrayed by Kevin Burke.
The delicious turnaround at the end of the play, when the long suffering new spouses become almost as badly behaved and hideous as their tormentors, reminds you how brilliant Coward was at structuring his pieces. I should like to live in a Coward play I think, perhaps sans cod violence but I certainly appreciate the romantic sentiment and the beautifully over the top language. The drama is exhilarating and it was the perfect antidote to the reality of life the past few months, while theatres have been firmly shut.
If I have one tiny criticism it would be that as a first night audience, we laughed at so many brilliantly delivered one-liners that occasionally the flow of the dialogue meant we missed the following line, but I am sure with the run the actors will get used to hearing their hard-earned and well-deserved audience response and tailor their pace accordingly. This is, as I say, the last in a season of pieces presented against all the odds in these Covid times by a hard-working company and brilliant actors, who deserve to be supported. I would urge anyone able to go down to the Mowlem Theatre for the final few days of their take on classic British theatre, to support the arts and support regional theatre at its best.
Reviewed by Nicole Faraday
Private Lives runs at The Mowlem Theatre, Swanage at 7.30 pm until Saturday,18th September, with a 2.30 matinee on the Saturday. Tickets available in person at the Box Office or via https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/the-mowlem-theatre/e-jvxbrl