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Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre

Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre

Marriage may be hell, but Jonathan Kent's revival of this Noël Coward comedy is divine

A match made in heaven: Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as ElyotTristram Kenton

A champagne cocktail with a hefty dash of bitters, Jonathan Kent’s production of this exquisite Noël Coward comedy of impossible passions is as wince-inducing as it is delightfully effervescent. A hit at Chichester Festival Theatre last autumn, it sees Toby Stephens slip suavely into the role of Elyot Chase opposite a sloe-eyed Anna Chancellor as his ex-wife, Amanda.

From the moment the two collide on their adjoining balconies at the French resort where both are honeymooning with new spouses, the atmosphere fizzes with sexual tension. For all their elegance, all the artfulness of their verbal sparring, there’s real hunger, intense, savage desire here. And chokingly funny though their attempts to make their relationship work the second time around may be, they are underscored with enough bitten-back fear and pain to keep us constantly uncomfortably aware that love is no laughing matter.

Anna Chancellor in Private LivesStephens and Chancellor certainly make a striking – and utterly believable – couple. With his lopsided, sardonic half-smile and floppy hair, Stephens is enormously charismatic. His bride, Sybil (Anna-Louise Plowman, Stephens’s real-life wife) hangs off him in the kind of voraciously affectionate gestures that suggest that, for all her prissy attention to propriety, she’s itching for some bedroom bliss. Stephens’s twitchiness betrays the early onset of boredom; and while there’s something of the mischievous little boy in his teasing, there’s also a touch of the spoilt brat about him when thwarted. 

If Sybil is, as Elyot describes her, kittenish, then Chancellor’s Amanda (pictured above) is a full-grown feline, stretching her limbs with languorous pleasure. One moment it suits her to be stroked, the next she turns her head away with faint disdain. She’s a confounding mystery to her new husband Victor Prynne – played with intelligent sympathy and to unusually likeable effect by Anthony Calf – who adores her hopelessly, but despairs of ever understanding her. Plowman’s Sybil may have her claws; but, fluttering and tearful in her fussy pink marabou evening dress, she’s no match for Chancellor in sleek, deep-green velvet – a gown Amanda hitches up to scale the dividing wall between the two balconies in a single cat-like bound before she and Elyot glide off together into the night.

Anthony Ward’s set performs the most graceful of pirouettes at the end of Act One to whisk us from Deauville to Amanda’s Paris apartment, a place of glittering Art Deco chic. It’s destined, inevitably, to become like a gilded emotional prison as Amanda and Elyot slide back into bad old habits, banter turning to baiting and eventually exploding into physical violence. Stephens’s charming, ardent lover becomes sarcastic, growling, stamping with rage, while Chancellor is reckless and incandescent with fury, her eyes glistening. The breathtaking cruelty and ferocious frustration are almost painful to watch. Yet it’s also so delicious that watch we do – and we laugh till it hurts.

Chancellor's Amanda is feline, stretching her limbs with languorous pleasure; one moment it suits her to be stroked, the next she turns away in disdain


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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