Christopher Walker reviews Noel Coward’s Private Lives

The London theatre adopted colour-blind casting long ago with considerable success. It is now fast embracing age-blind casting, with Sir Ian McKellen channelling the teenage angst of Hamlet at over eighty.

By contrast, the Old Vic’s new production of Noel Coward’s classic Private Lives is less stretching.

The two much-loved stars, Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers, are only in their seventies and playing thirty-somethings.

Of course great plays age as well as Hodge and Havers, and still have relevance.

There is much to recognize in this ‘portrait of a marriage’ between Amanda and Elyot.

Two charmingly infuriating people who simply can’t live together, and can’t live apart.

Patricia Hodge in Private Lives by Noel Coward @ Ambassadors Theatre. ©Tristram Kenton

A strange piece of writing, that would not survive dissection, yet somehow stands up on stage, it would fall apart in the hands of lesser actors.

Coward himself said it was “tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring,” and that remains so today.

Though perhaps not quite as daring as in 1930, when “cocktails, repartee and irreverent allusions to copulation” were thought so shocking the play was threatened with censorship. Now you’d take your mother.

The comedy is well to the fore in the hands of two such experienced players, who make the most of the imagined situation of being on your honeymoon with your new partner only to find your ‘ex’ in the adjoining suite.

The new wife and husband, played by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Natalie Walter, are inevitably mere foils as Coward intended.

The design is suitably stylish, particularly Amanda’s chic Paris flat.

Nigel Havers and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart in Private Lives by Noel Coward @ Ambassadors Theatre. ©Tristram Kenton

And the historic demeanour and small scale of the beautifully restored Ambassador’s Theatre are somehow perfect for the piece, delivering an intimate performance.

If only they’d made the bars bigger I would have been less tempted to reach for one of Amanda’s cocktails.

The characters’ manic desire to “live” is all too familiar to a post-Covid audience.

As are the allusions to the Mediterranean being too hot in the summer, and the dangers of sunbathing.

They meet in Deauville in the North of France, not in the deep south.

A sign of things to come.



 Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

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