Private Lives (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Private Lives (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until February 6th)

So many productions of Noel Coward’s landmark Private Lives in the past few years have focussed on the darker and harsher side of the 1930 comedy of manners that it can be quite a surprise to see a more traditionally frivolous and farcical production of the period piece on the stage.

At its heart this tale of romance and relationships attempts to demonstrate that, “Very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives.” It probably only ever maintained its true sophistication and flamboyance when Coward and Gertrude Lawrence starred in the original production as the couple who can’t live with or without each other meeting up after a divorce while on their respective honeymoons married to new partners.

The central pair are equally matched – swaying dangerously from acerbic wit to out and out nastiness – and the depth of their superficiality shows them up to be dysfunctional and dislikeable.

In this new production, currently on a short tour, the protagonists Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne are definitely not equally matched, which suggests either poor casting somewhere along the line or a commendable attempt by director Tom Attenborough to find something new in this loving and loathing relationship which oozes selfishness. If the latter, then it’s all a bit lightweight and one can’t help but feel that the aim has been to present a Noel Coward play because of its stature and reputation, without ever really getting to the heart of what it’s all about.

The ever-likeable and greatly talented Tom Chambers (who must surely win an award for “campest entrance through net curtains”) plays Elyot with a boyish charm that is as engaging and irritating as Coward must have wanted. Hard to know if this childishness in temper, humour, and petulant behaviour would really have attracted the attention of the forthright and often harsh Amanda, but this Elyot disarms his ex-wife constantly with cheeky grins and impish verbal comebacks.

Laura Rogers as Amanda is a commanding presence, a formidable and unconventional siren out for self-gratification. She would chew up and spit out just about any male, so it is hard to believe that she would be seduced so frequently by something as simple as a puppy dog expression.

The secondary roles of Victor and Sibyl, the two new spouses, are often little more than weak props to the stars so it is joy to see them both given such oomph by Richard Teverson and Charlotte Ritchie. The latter’s Sibyl in particular is a masterpiece performance of a timid and naive underdog growing in confidence and giving as good as she gets by the end.

This production was rehearsed in a relatively short period, which may account for the hard-working and perfectly competent cast tending to base their performances on brief character studies rather than immersing themselves in the parts through what is being said or understanding their motivations.

This sense is also reflected in Lucy Osborne’s design: to look at, capturing an opulent Art Deco style on the Deauville hotel balconies and in the Paris apartment; but the simplest of moves by the actors cause wobbles. A more assured production might cause us to feel that the set reflected the perfunctory demeanour of its characters.

While pleasing (and the first night Brighton audience lapped up the humour and got completely involved with all the characters), there is deep down something about this production that fails to ignite a lasting flame. The director may like to feel a bit clearer in his mind exactly what he is trying to achieve with a play that can be seen for ten a penny in unadventurous and often pedestrian format.

A little more conviction and several degrees more camp and this production would threaten the reputation of classy predecessors.

David Guest