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Private Lives

Nicola Mostyn says if that’s love, she’ll just have a nice cup of tea

Published on September 17th 2007.

Private Lives

Two couples are enjoying a holiday when one wife sneaks off to be with the other’s husband, both hotly pursued by their beleagured spouses. Erm…does this plot remind anyone else of Duty Free? Humour me for a moment, if you will, as we consider which other sitcoms might owe a debt to classic drama: Seinfeld and Waiting for Godot? Steptoe and Son and The Caretaker? Sorry! and…um…Oedipus The King?

Ok, ok, Noel Coward’s 1930s play doesn’t really have that much in common with an 1980s TV programme - although, just as Duty Free mocked up their ‘Costa del Sol’ in a TV studio in Leeds (oh the glamour) so does the Library Theatre do a decent imitation of a pair of French hotel balconies.

As we meet the play, Elyot and his second wife Sybil have just arrived on their honeymoon. In the adjacent room Amanda and her second husband Victor have just arrived on their honeymoon.

This is a play about couples and opposites. On one side the charming, self-absorbed Elyot is grilled by his new wife about his tempestuous marriage to Amanda. Next door the imperious ‘Mandy’ is quizzed about her stormy relationship with Elyot. The audience is well aware that it’s only a matter of time before Amanda and Elyot clap eyes on one another again and, after three years apart, set back in motion an explosive attraction which will wreak havoc on the hopes of their doting new partners.

Seventy years after this play was first produced, many taboos have been broken and boundaries crossed. Some things endure, however, such as the question of how to love: is it best to give in to animalistic attraction which will eventually drive you to violence and insanity or to opt for a placid, mature, plodding sort of affection?

Isla Carter and Philip Rham do a masterly job of persuading the audience that the former option is best as they fawn on and indulge their more exciting and unstable partners, coming across as an irritating, manipulative sap and a pompous, blustering stuffed shirt, respectively. In comparison, Amanda and Elyot are a blast of bracing air – Elyot (James Wallace) is droll and selfish and prone to sudden bellowing, a perfect match/nemesis for the capricious Amanda, played with gusto by Phillipa Peak, whose comic delivery and well timed gestures make her the production’s highlight.

Imbued with the perfectly charming insouciance of the period, Private Lives is a play which induces gentle chuckles, rather than non-stop guffaws. There are some wonderful lines, beautifully delivered, but Coward’s originally shocking play has inevitably lost much of its power and so the script feels rather thin at times and the simple plot a trifle stretched.

But the cast make the most of what they’ve got and director Chris Honer uses other elements such as gestures, verbal emphasis and some cracking physical theatre to draw the most out of the piece.

Besides, even if modern audiences are jaded with divorce, infidelity and deceit the plays proves it still has the power to make the audience gasp as, having run away to Paris together, Amanda and Elyot’s passion flames into anger and aggression once again.

Domestic violence probably shouldn’t be funny but in Coward’s hands it rather is – partly because of its cartoonish but horribly accurate depiction of the sort of irrational, acidic anger that badly needs an outlet. The greatest impact though comes though Coward’s refusal to condemn or moralise, leaving the audience with a feeling that a life lived delivering facetious comments and beating each other over the head with gramophone records is, at least, preferable to the alternative.

Private Lives, Library Theatre (Central Library, St Peter’s Square, City. 0161 236 7110. www.librarytheatre.com). From £9. 13 Sep - 06 Oct

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