Private Lives, Theatre Royal, Bath

ON the 24th of September 1930 London’s glitterati gathered for the opening of a new Theatre, the Phoenix. It was a night when champagne corks popped and everything sparkled, including the first production Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Despite critic Ivor Brown writing ‘ Within a few years, the student of drama will be sitting in complete bewilderment before the text of Private Lives wondering what on earth these fellows in 1930 saw in so flimsy a trifle’ the play has become a classic comedy, with dozens of the top players trying their hand at following Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence into the roles of Elyot and Amanda.

The success rate of these actors has been variable, many of them failing because they tried too hard to copy the style of Coward and Lawrence, others because they hammered the brittle witty dialogue so hard that it ceased to be funny. Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge fell into neither of these traps creating their own version of these two warring romantics who cannot live peacefully together or happily apart. They had the style and skill to make full use of a Coward script bubbling over with witty dialogue, timing the delivery expertly, and enhancing its effect by a telling look or perfectly held pause.

They looked perfectly at home on the balcony of their five-star Deauville hotel where they met, both on their second honeymoons with new very unsuitable partners. No wonders they escape together to Amanda’s Paris flat. It’s been a long time since I heard a spontaneous round of applause greet the appearance of a new set, but beautifully designed and dressed by Simon Higlett it was a round of applause well deserved. Equally at ease in this setting Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge added some lovely musical moments. It would have been a bonus to have heard more of Patricia Hodge’s singing, but nice as Mr Havers accompanied her with the piano key board hidden from view me doubts that he was actually playing Coward’s nostalgic music.

Into this Parisian idyll burst Natalie Walter’s shallow, not very bright, Sybil and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s narrow minded pompous Victor, the deserted new partners left behind at Deauville. Both played in a manner that left you in no doubt that they would never make suitable partners for Elyot and Amanda.

With Coward’s duologue firing witticisms off at great speed it takes excellent team playing if these final two scenes are to bring their full quantity of laughter, and Director Christopher Luscombe must take a great deal of credit for helping this quartet, plus Aicha Kossoko, as a cynical, slightly excitable French Maid, to be such a close comedy team so early in their partnership. Just one complaint for Mr Luscombe, in the dying moments when Amanda and Elyot were seated on the sofa heads moving from side to side, like spectators at a tennis match, watching Sybil and Victor verbally abusing one another, I had a clear view of Elyot’s reactions to the situation, but alas Amanda was hidden from view masked by Victor.

This beautifully in period production is the inaugural production of the newly formed Nigel Havers Theatre Company. Judging from the reception it received Bath audiences are already eagerly awaiting, as am I, the company’s next offering.




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