6 February 2014, Barnet Odeon
Private Lives was screened at selected cinemas on 6 February as part of the West End Theatre series. For more information, and details of future screenings, see the Cinema Live website.
After Maria Friedman’s Merrily We Roll Along back in November, Digital Theatre has once again teamed up with CinemaLive to bring audiences nationwide a chance to go back into the glorious age of Noël Coward, with a screening of one of his best-loved works, Private Lives. This production originally premièred at the Chichester Festival Theatre in autumn 2012, before transferring to the Gielgud Theatre in 2013, where this special filming was recorded starring indisputably fine actors Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens as the central on-off couple.
Some of the best and most recent revivals of plays from this era bring something new and fresh, in an attempt to make sense of what now feels like a distant age. Yet this recreation of the Coward classic demands that you revel in the old-fashionedness of it all, looking back over the decades with comical affection at the now-dated attitudes and customs. The character of Sibyl (an amusingly irritating Anna-Louise Plowman) fulfils this more than any other, with her girlish hysteria bringing laughs and frustration alternately, as does the character of Louise, the maid whose single comedic factor is her French-ness — this now feels a rather staid source of humour. Having said this, there is a flash of surprising and fascinating modernity in a passage in which Elyot (Toby Stephens) and Amanda (Anna Chancellor) discuss the varying attitudes towards male and female promiscuity — a discussion that, interestingly and rather worryingly, could easily have been penned 84 years later in 2014.
Despite the lack of anything new here, this is an enjoyable recreation of one of Coward’s best-loved works. The first re-meeting of Elyot and Amanda is wonderfully delivered, with Stephens’ calculated overacting (which works perfectly in this context) and Chancellor’s bold performance and rapidly-changing visage. It’s their dynamic that keeps the whole play going from this moment on, with much of the script being a two-hander between these two divorcees who thoughtlessly reignite their passion. Meanwhile Sibyl (Plowman) and Victor (Anthony Calf) are sidelined throughout much of the action, only really given the chance to show their comedic mettle in the final scenes. Coward’s antipathy towards these sorts of people — one dull, the other sickening in drippiness — could not be more evident in the dramatic attention he gives the rejected spouses.
There is no doubting that Chancellor and Stephens are a great double act, and we always feel in safe hands as they negotiate the extreme ups and downs of the lovers’ relationship, from sensual desire to raging anger. Their strong performances demonstrate exuberant confidence and control, with a sold grasp and understanding of both text and character. The only problem is that perhaps we sometimes feel too safe, and at times I yearned them to push the characterisation further to test the waters of what can work for this play. Both use physicality well, with Stephens’ sarcastic expressions and buffoonery drawing many a laugh — yet sadly, the physical depiction of their more violent fights is terribly cringeworthy, with none of the blows appearing genuine, and the crash of household objects, flung around with abandon, having little impact. The relationship should be a combination of hilarious and potentially dangerous, yet these fight scenes uphold neither side of the dichotomy. Perhaps at a distance they would have been more believable, and were shown up by the close-ups in this screening, but, frankly, they stick out like a sore thumb against the otherwise accomplished performances and direction.
The rapid second half comes to a cyclical ending with little resolution for either party — it’s not hard to imagine similar events occurring again and again for these characters — and comes around rather too quickly. On the whole this is a pleasing rendition of a classic Coward comedy, with an impressive central pairing, although the whole production lacks quite enough spark to make it a memorable hit.