Robert Tanitch reviews Noël Coward’s Private Lives at Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London

Robert Tanitch reviews Noël Coward’s Private Lives at Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London

Lord Louis Mountbatten on Noël Coward’s 70th birthday said: ‘There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret stars, greater TV stars. If there are, they are 14 different people. Only one man combined all 14 labels – The Master.’

Private Lives is one of Noël Coward’s most popular comedies and regularly revived. Michael Longhurst’s intimate production features Stephen Mangan and Rachel Stirling in the leading roles.

Elyot and Amanda meet five years after their divorce whilst they are on their respective honeymoons with their new partners, Sibyl and Victor, in a French seaside hotel. They take flight for Paris. The second act, in its glib repartee, jealous recriminations, egotistical bickering, boorish behaviour and idiotic fighting, is a microcosm of their former bitter-sweet marriage.

‘There is no need to be nasty,’ says Amanda. ‘Yes, there is,’ says Elyot. These two glib, irritating, promiscuous egoists, who can’t bear to be apart and yet quarrel all the time when they are together, are in the witty lover tradition, which goes right back to Shakespeare and Beatrice and Benedick and Katharine and Petruchio.
Coward created the roles for himself and Gertrude Lawrence and I doubt very much if the incessant trivial flippancy and songs have ever had quite the same jagged sophistication again. The dialogue has the unmistakable Coward stamp and his brittle, clipped, staccato delivery has been preserved on disc.

The sparring, both verbally and physically, is amusing; but the actors, including Sargon Yelda and Laura Carmichael as Victor and Sibyl, are skating on very thin ice. The first act is visually surprisingly ugly. The hotel balconies setting is totally lacking in the 1930s glamour the comedy needs.

Coward always acknowledged that the second act, when he and Lawrence were on their own for forty minutes, had more pitfalls than anything he had ever attempted as an actor and that they both had to fall back on their own technical resources and personalities.

Longhurst takes the play far too seriously and it’s not much fun until the third act when the four actors are at their best.

Readers will be interested to hear there is a new and excellent biography by Oliver Soden on Noël Coward, the first in nearly 30 years, and full of new information about his activities during World War Two. Oliver Soden’s Masquerade:The Lives of Noël Coward, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, is strongly recommended.

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