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Private Lives by Noël Coward
April 5th - April 9th
Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers star in the Classic Comedy by Noël Coward
With Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, Natalie Walter and Aïcha Kossoko,
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Noël Coward’s gloriously entertaining Private Lives is the inaugural show from The Nigel Havers Theatre Company, which will be touring the country with a wonderful line-up of theatrical gems. Elyot and Amanda, who were once married, find themselves on honeymoon with their new partners, in the same hotel on the French coast, admiring the view from adjoining balconies. Their initial horror quickly evaporates and soon they are sharing cocktails. Who knows what the future holds for them now…
Olivier Award-winning Patricia Hodge, one of the country’s most loved actresses, plays Amanda. Nigel Havers, ever suave and thoroughly charming, plays Elyot, the role taken by Noël Coward himself in the original production in 1930. Private Lives is directed by Christopher Luscombe.
“ONE OF THE MOST SATISFYINGLY CONSTRUCTED AND BRILLIANTLY EXECUTED HIGH COMEDIES IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE”
“A MASTERCLASS IN WIT”
“HINGES ON THE TWO GREAT DRIVING FORCES OF ENGLISH LIFE – SEX AND CLASS”
IT is hard to imagine, but when Private Lives was first staged back in 1930, the “love scenes” in the second act were considered very risqué and only narrowly missed being censored by The Lord Chamberlain.
Oh, how times have changed!
A comedy of manners – ill manners, at that – together with bickering, arguments and full-blown fights, this is Noel Coward’s re-ignition of a love that turned sour.
At Malvern it is a sumptuous, sophisticated delight, thanks to the casting of Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers.
Such is their esteem that their entrances brought murmurs of appreciation from the first night audience.
And what better pairs of hands in which to entrust this timeless period piece? It is perfect casting. They sing. They dance. They flirt. They are a joy to watch.
The pair are Amanda and Elyot, battered divorcees from a volatile marriage who find themselves honeymooning with new – and younger – partners, in adjoining suites at a hotel in northern France. Their meeting triggers the realisation that they should never have gone their separate ways, but ridden out the turbulent storms of being Mr and Mrs - and so they decide to do something about it...
The dialogue is clipped and brittle, its delivery perfectly precise and old style BBC RP.
The premise of the play may be somewhat far-fetched but it is entertaining through and through thanks in great part to the luminary performances of Hodge and Havers.
She revels in Coward’s waspish words, dismissing those around her with the mere hint of a look. We all know that he can corner the market in charm but here, in an instant, he is able to turn it on its head and lash out with vindictive bile. Together, Hodge and Havers work magnificently in tandem and their comic timing is a revelation.
Coward’s orginal production – for which he wrote Some Day I’ll Find You and he himself played Elyot – probably didn’t envisage the lead roles as being of “a certain age”. Here, those “outrageous” seduction scenes which were thought likely to corrupt 30’s morals are somewhat dampened by Elyot’s creaky bones and the crick in Amanda’s neck.
Natalie Walter and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart play the hapless other halves, Sibyl and Victor and Aicha Kossoko puts in an all too short appearance as Louise, the breezy French maid.
Private Lives is a winner from its candy-striped awning start to its outrageously funny end. It is also the inaugural production of The Nigel Havers Theatre Company and it bodes well for the newcomer’s future.
The View From The Stalls
Not content with being in nearly 200 episodes of Coronation Street, hosting The Bidding Room on BBC and starring in many a panto over the year, septuagenarian Nigel Havers has just created his own theatre company called, appropriately enough, The Nigel Havers Theatre Company and the first production, in conjunction with Theatre Royal Bath, is Noel Coward's classic comedy Private Lives.
For this, Havers teams up with Patricia Hodge OBE, a very talented actress herself perhaps best known in recent years for playing Miranda's mother in the TV sitcom. The pair (Elyot and Amanda) play a divorced couple who are starting their married lives with their new partners, Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Sybil (Natalie Walter). Unfortunately they have chosen to spend their honeymoons in the same Deauville hotel and even more unfortunately, in adjoining rooms. So the first thing we see is an impressively large three storey construction of the soft pastel-coloured hotel balconies, overseeing the band who happen to play the former couple's favourite tunes. This is a couple who throughout the show prove that they cannot live with each other, cannot live without each other, fight continuously taking a break only when the safe word is uttered to prevent it escalating to something even more violent and then proceed to make up each time in what could be considered the blueprint for every rom-com since.
Not long after their first unexpected meeting, which neither of their new partners were party to, they decide they must leave together and head for Amanda's Paris apartment, which is the equally impressively-decorated location for the second and third acts and which also introduces the very funny maid Louise (Aicha Kossoko) - especially funny if you understand French as she doesn't utter a word of English whilst she complains about having to go to a different place to get their pain au chocolat! The arrival of Victor and Sybil in the flat turns the tables somewhat, with the bickering transferring to these two whilst Elyot and Sybil smile knowingly at each other and sneak out of the flat…
The play remains in its original time and place where Coward himself played Elyot in 1930. Whilst at the time he would have been much younger - in his 30's - the pairing of Havers and Hodge still works well because they are a believable older couple for whom the scenario of second marriages is, particularly these days, quite realistic.
This is a beautifully staged comedy of manners (or lack of them!), very funny and perfectly suited to the Malvern audience which clearly thoroughly enjoyed it. Based on this first successful outing, the audience can look forward what The Nigel Havers Theatre Company will bring us next.
The critically acclaimed Private Lives has always had (for this reviewer at least) that extra something which only Noel Coward could achieve. First shown in the 1930s it became the signature piece for a carefree, disillusioned generation, which had moved on from the 1914-1918 war into the Great Depression. Sexual mores were mocked by a shimmying, cocaine addicted younger set, who cared much more about dancing the Charleston than listening to dubious advice from their parents.
Coward wrote play in a burst of creative energy whilst convalescing in a Singapore hospital. Which is when he sent a kind of "hold on and wait" letter to the actress Gertrude Lawrence, an old mate, who shared some of Coward's social and sexual anarchistic sexual values ( "I'm all for being abandoned in the love scenes, and doing a few things that will give the old ladies a treat at the matinees") and so the die was cast for a play, initially directed by Coward himself, which has never ceased to amuse and entertain audiences ever since that explosive first night in 1930.
Accused of "flippancy" by certain disgruntled critics who objected to Coward's casual treatment of such sacred cows as marriage and emotional constancy, Coward went on to become the embodiment of the effervescence and cynicism of a generation who felt themselves let down by the phoney paternalism of successive governments, not to mention the ill-judged activities of privileged members of the royal family who, quite frankly, should have known better!
But how does Coward come off today in a world cursed with disease and personal vanity, whose values are encapsulated in late-night games shows and long-running sentimental family sitcoms, much of it built around tedious advertising? Perhaps the house-full notices provide the answer, since at Malvern on opening night, a huge crowd of theatre-goers roared with laughter at Coward's wit and exuberance much as one assumes they did many years ago. And if that isn't cheering, then I don't know what is!
Initially it was Coward and Gertie Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda (with Laurence Olivier as the juvenile lead Victor) who successfully stormed the theatrical barricades in both London and New York. Married, but now divorced, they appear on the balcony of a hotel in the South of France, squiring their new partners into the moonlight and a dry Martini. Obviously they meet accidentally, Elyot wonders why he ever divorces Amanda, she feels the same, and the rest you can guess.
The play moves into a Paris apartment owned by Amanda ( the setting, with its gruesome black plywood piano, was mildly shabby and suggested to me the money had been spent on the delightfully fresh hotel facade which opened the evening backed by that delightfully cynical Coward tune: "Parisian Pierrot"). But the wit and sheer fun of the piece is as invigorating as ever I remember it, with Nigel Havers, filled with caddish charm, coming out of the troubling shadows of late middle age to play Elyot (we should remember that Coward, born in 1899, would have been around 31 when the play first appeared, but there you go--Havers fills houses). This good actor is aided and abetted by Patricia Hodge as Amanda, in a performance which reminded me of that line by Shakespeare, which might well have been written for Ms Hodge: "age shall not wither her, nor custom fade her infinite enchantment".
These were seasoned actors, who are also good singers, took the action along at a superb pace. They also prove they have superb articulation, and projection, thus enabling their audiences to hear clearly every single word, something of which Coward, the perfectionist, would have totally approved. Elsewhere Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, enters our affections a trifle slowly as a heavyweight Victor, Natalie Walter shrieks her various indignations convincingly as Sibyl, Elyot's new wife, and Christopher Luscombe, whose work I have always admired, directs with seasoned cleverness.
Great comedy play brilliantly acted.
What a wonderful evening St. Gabriel's WI theatre group had watching this excellent production of Private Lives.
There are certain canonical classical texts that, no matter how often you've collapsed in stitches on a rainy winter afternoon reading the transcript in the gloomy murk, eating toasted crumpets & drinking industrial strength tea; nothing can prepare you for the impact of a full theatre blitzkrieg by a confident, relaxed cast of accomplished actors, secure in every move, pause and nuanced gesture as they bring words to life, beneath this ancient theatre's stage lights.
During the stupefied trance of lockdown I'd wander traumatised through my adopted home town and gaze at the shuttered frontages of this incredible venue, wondering if I'd ever laugh again like it was panto season with Sue Pollard appearing behind me like a demon to shock me and watch as the children laughed at Daddy petrified by the surprise of it all.
I could type all night about the quality of the production, the warmth emanating from the stage, the thrill of hearing so many people laughing in unison rather than remotely on Zoom but...that would be pointless, because the only way to understand the beauty and healing energies of this performance of 'Private Lives' by the Venerable Noel Coward, upcycled and reimagined by Nigel Havers, Patricia Hodge, Donald Bruce-Lockhart, Natalie Walter and Aicha Kossoko, is to experience it yourself.
Long ago and far away I had a dream that I'd somehow manage to live in the sanctuary of the Malvern Hills. Sometimes dreams come true. I also used to wonder if I'd ever meet anyone as preternaturally suave, urbane and unchained as Noel Coward until one morning, shaving in front of a 'rough trade' cracked mirror in some random flop house in East London, he appeared as I wiped the condensation and winked at me...
Andy Gerry Dooley-Mooney
Absolutely brilliant! Performances do not always live up to expectation but in this case it exceeded in all areas. There was so much spontaneous laughter in the audience, something you cannot replicate, and we continued to bask in the warmth of feeling as we left the theatre, excitedly chatting with others about the shared experience!