Private Lives – September 2012

9/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 21st September 2012

The very first performance, and already they’ve got the characters established. We were a good audience as well, laughing early and plentifully throughout the evening, so we got them off to a good start. With such strong casting for all the parts the two leading roles didn’t dominate as much as usual, and the overall production was the better for it. The final argument between Sybil and Victor was very strong, and made Elyot and Amanda’s sneaky exit even funnier, partly because it echoed Victor and Sybil’s entrance at the end of the second act beautifully.

The sets were also beautiful. The stage itself had been raised up for this production, with Art Deco scalloped edges at the front and stylish black herringbone floorboards running front to back. About halfway back there were a number of small lights set into the floor which glowed like the lights of the town for the first act and were covered with a carpet for the rest of the play. The balconies themselves were splendid. A large picture frame spanned the width of the stage, with the two sets of French windows underneath. The balconies were also curved outwards a little, and the ironwork of the railings was all curves. There were tall gauzy curtains behind all this, and the effect was of sumptuous luxury. The costumes were a perfect match for all of this elegance.

The interval was taken after the second act, so the scene change between acts one and two had to be brisk. Victor and Sybil remained on their respective balconies when the lights went out, and the crew immediately brought on the furniture for the flat and started setting it up. There was a chaise on the left of the stage, a scooped sofa at the front and a single chair with side table on the right further back. A carpet was rolled out in the centre. Meanwhile, the balconies which were on the revolve had rotated round to the back, revealing the rest of the flat with its Art Deco Chinoiserie style wallpaper, contemporary pictures on the walls, concealed swing door to the kitchen (identifiable by the decorative plate hanging there), dining table and chairs and a grand piano on the left hand side. The main door was in the centre, and when it opened up the balcony railings became the landing railings – a nice touch. There were also two bedroom doors, one on each side of the stage, and plenty of other matching items, with masses of cushions everywhere.

I won’t go into the story: the performances, however, are another matter. I’ve already commented on the strong casting of the supporting roles; now it’s the turn of the leads. Toby Stephens was excellent as Elyot. He’s good at upper class roles anyway, but here he conveyed all the louche arrogance of this immature but charming character extremely well. The only minor point was that I couldn’t always hear him when he spoke softly – the Minerva is deceptively small, and even softer speech has to be given a boost – but I’m confident he’ll sort that out before we see it next time. Anna Chancellor matched him perfectly with Amanda’s waywardness and elegance. They managed to make the long second act bearable and even enjoyable, which is some feat. I’ve found before that spending such a long time in the company of two people who are so immature, who can be intermittently charming but are ultimately shallow, self-absorbed and uninteresting, usually palls about half-way through this act; not so tonight. The two actors have so much class that they gave these rather two-dimensional characters a hint of 3D, a sense that they might be real after all (god help us!) with real feelings and experiences. The resulting twists and turns in their relationship, as they unfolded in the second act, became compelling viewing, from the gushy happiness of the post-dinner glow through the inevitable bickering held less and less in check by ‘Solomon Isaacs’, to the final all out blazing row with full-on violence. I did feel a little bit of tedium creep in towards the end, but compared to my usual experience this was a huge improvement, and as the punch-up started soon afterwards I didn’t have anything to complain about.

Anthony Calf as Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman as Sybil did a fine job in these often underplayed roles. Their stiffness and conventionality are just as important to the play as Amanda and Elyot’s wild and carefree existence, and these two nailed their characters to perfection. The result was a great deal more humour, especially in the third act and particularly when Victor and Sybil finally erupted into their own flaming row, no doubt the first of many. I must also mention Maggie McCarthy as the maid. She wasn’t on stage for long, and along with Victor and Sybil I didn’t understand everything she said (it’s a long time since I did French at school) but she was wonderfully grumpy about everything, and again this was strong casting for such a small part. Maggie seems to have cornered the market in maids and nurses; this year already we’ve seen her in Uncle Vanya (Minerva again), The Doctor’s Dilemma (Lyttelton) and here – she’s been a busy woman.

With such a strong cast and excellent production I’m sure this will sell out, so we’re glad we’ve already booked for another performance, the last for this year and the last before the main theatre is revamped.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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