With cinema now over 100 years old, it is struggling for ways to stay popular profitable and relevant in the face of large plasma TVs, video on demand, changing lifestyles and digital gadgets. If 3D, blockbusters and adaptations of teen fantasy novels are strategies aimed at the under 25s, the idea of transmitting the best of live opera and theatre into local cinemas has proved popular with the over 50s. For many of the Live from the Met, Covent Garden or National Theatre productions, there’s not a seat to be found in any London cinema. But for legal and financial reasons, some of the best stage productions at individual venues remained unseen by the general public.
Now, two companies, Digital Theatre works and CinemaLive have joined forces to record a selection of the best theatre on offer for cinema viewing. Judging from their first production, The Menier Chocolate Factory’s Merrily We Roll Along and last night’s production of the Chichester Theatre’s production of Private Lives, they have very good taste.
Despite the pouring rain and the crippling underground strike, a healthy-sized crowd of primarily over 50s, arrived at the Odeon Covent Garden, one of dozens of venues showing a film version of the play that was pre-recorded at the Gielgud Theatre in London. Granted, pre-recorded productions lack the excitement of ‘live’, and the cinema tends to highlight the artificiality of the stage, something you tend to accept when you go to theatre. But no one in the audience was disappointed with Jonathan Kent’s lively production or the terrific 1930’s decor by Anthony Ward.
This comedy of manners, with its fast, biting repartee, is Noël Coward at his best. Elyot Chase (Toby Stephens), newly married to a much younger and taller young society girl, Sibyl (Anna Louise Plowman), and Amanda (Anna Chancellor), newly wed to a more mature, stable man, Victor Prynne (Anthony Calf) are divorcees. They were too passionately in love to remain single or married, their squabbles having led to high-profile divorces. Now, five years on and still licking their wounds, they have each chosen malleable companions rather than strong-minded, high-spirited lovers.
When Elyot and Amanda discover that they are honeymooning in adjacent rooms, however, the old flame is reignited. Fearing for the worse, they try in vain to convince their new spouses to leave the hotel. Unable to restrain themselves, Elyot and Amanda run off to Amanda’s Paris flat together leaving their bemused spouses to comfort one another in Deauville.
If Anna-Louise Plowman and Anthony Calf lack the chemistry and either talent or direction to make the final scene convincing, the same cannot be said of the two stars. Toby Stephens, inheriting the part from his father, the great Robert Stephens, is nothing short of perfection. He is extremely sexy, and able to breathe humour and wit even to a few lines that, 84 years on, might otherwise seem dated. When Sibyl reassures Elyot that her dragon mother is really “a darling underneath”, Elyot replies, ‘I never got underneath’ with perfect comic timing.
Stephens’ chemistry with the equally strong Chancellor sizzles, even across the unforgiving reality of High Definition digital recording. Both wealthy, assured, selfish and yet somehow deluded, Stephens’ Elyot and Chancellor’s Mandy feel like they’ve not only been married before, but are mirror images of one another.
If the two couples’ physical slapping jars modern audiences, Jonathan Kent and his actors will us into accepting it in its context. But there’s more to the slapping than some good fun. Much as we would love to, no one in the audience would be betting a lot of money on the chances of Elyot and Amanda growing old in matrimonial bliss.
If you are priced out of high-profile West End Productions, can’t get a ticket at any price, or simply cannot commit to buying theatre tickets weeks or months in advance, CinemaLive’s High Definition Digital recordings shown in your local cinema might be the answer. Keep an eye out for their next one-night only event.
By Joyce Glasser