By Noël Coward
Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6AR
To September 21
The play Private Lives has more lives than a cat. Written by Noël Coward in the 1920s, it had its first stage production at London's Phoenix Theatre in 1930 to rave reviews, and starred Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Adrianne Allen and Laurence Olivier. The next year it hit Broadway. Here we are, 83 years later and Private Lives is still a hit!
The story is actually a very simple one. Newlyweds Elyot and Sibyl (Toby Stephens and Anna-Louise Plowman) are on a hotel balcony in Deauville talking about their new future together and discussing Elyot's previous marriage. In the room next door, Amanda and Victor (Anna Chancellor and Anthony Calf), also newlyweds, are enjoying one of their first nights together. Separated on the balcony by just a small partition, Elyot and Amanda used to be married - apparently a very volatile relationship.
After arguing with their respective partners over very minor matters, Amanda spots Elyot on his balcony. Coy, shy and nervous at first, before long Amanda jumps over the partition to be with him. They drink, reminisce, have a few laughs, and decide to run off together to Paris where Amanda has a flat. Honeymooners all over again, loving, laughing, then arguing and fighting with each other, just as they did when they were previously married. With Sybil and Victor turning up, who is going to end up with whom?
Considering Private Lives has played in the West End a couple times in the past 13 years (most recently at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2010, starring Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen), this version of the play, a transfer from the Chichester, has opened to rave reviews and will be talked about for years to come. Chancellor upstages everyone in the cast: she can tell a joke, pout and erupt in a big laugh when necessary, and dance and flail her arms memorably. Her chemistry with Stephens is palpable, and makes it believable that she could fall in love with him all over again. Her eyes flutter, her gowns (and robe) drape over her like the star she is.
Stephens is able, somewhat, to keep up with her, credible firstly as the man whose second wife is seven years younger than him, then falling back in love with his ex-wife, smouldering in one moment and then vile the next. Calf and Plowman are second fiddles to the main two actors. They are solid enough, but this is Chancellor's show, and they know it.
The set design, by Anthony Ward, is luscious. The balcony in the first act is gorgeous, and when the play switches to the Paris flat, we see classic French style, from the checkerboard floor to the paintings on the wall, very detailed and lovely to look at. Director Jonathan Kent couldn't have gotten better performances from his cast, and the script is funny, witty, dramatic – all you could ask for in a Noël Coward play. Chancellor's performance is terrific.