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Private Lives, Aylesbury Waterside ★★½

Originally published on The Reviews Hub.

Noël Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is widely regarded as one of his comic masterpieces. Starting with two divorcees discovering, to their horror, that they are honeymooning with their respective new spouses in adjoining hotel suites, Coward’s script contains plenty of smart one-liners and deft send-ups of the social mores of the day.

While Coward productions have been known to be hamstrung by an over-reliance on a vocal style that imitates the author and performer’s own clipped delivery, this touring production inherits the more relaxed tone to dialogue that made Tom Attenborough’s production work so well in the West End with Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor in the lead roles as Elyot and Amanda. In this touring production, we see the flip side of that creative decision: a pair of actors who veer between throwing away lines and signalling them in advance, robbing several moments of the potential for caustic hilarity, and resulting in a production that struggles to bring out the best in Coward’s script.

As Elyot, Tom Chambers is a very 21st Century idea of a 1930s roué. The character’s Act I flashes of anger and cruelty towards his new wife, Sibyl, are a little too broadly snarling, too obviously brutish, to enable the audience to retain the necessary doubt about which woman he truly loves. Laura Rogers’ Amanda, a forthright and sexually liberated woman by the standards of the era, is better able to bring out the strains of barely restrained anarchy that makes her character so charming and dangerous. But both characters are always too aware of the impact of their words before they utter them: when one-liners are issued with delivery just shy of a wink to the audience, it becomes harder to believe these are two people who are naturally funny.

More effective are the couple’s new spouses. As Sibyl, Charlotte Ritchie is most effortlessly at home in the period. And while her character spends a lot of the time feeling affronted and crying, her eventual sparring with Rogers is joyously bitchy, Ritchie more than holding her own. Richard Teverson’s Victor is similarly impressive as Amanda’s stoical new husband, although his buttoned-down, old fashioned nature never quite convinces that his and Amanda’s marriage would ever have happened in the first place.

As the action moves to Elyot and Sibyl’s Parisian hideaway, designer Lucy Osborne’s art deco set impresses far more than Act I’s hotel balconies. Deprived of other supporting characters, the two lead characters prove to be too generally unlikeable to engage with, although an extended dance sequence (playing to Strictly Come Dancing winner Chambers’ strengths) is not without its charms. The play’s famous fight segment, here choreographed with exuberant skill by Bret Yount, is the production’s most accomplished sequence – although it highlights a modern audience’s discomfort at domestic abuse being used for entertainment, both in the actors’ physicality and Elyot’s claim that women “should be struck regularly, like gongs”.

What is also noticeable is that it takes the actors a couple of acts to grasp the nuances of projecting into the Waterside’s cavernous auditorium, which is highly unforgiving to the unamplified spoken word. What starts out as shouting of Coward’s zingers, compounding the sense of the comedy missing the mark, eventually settles down into strong vocal projection that is more consistent with the dialogue’s tone. One would imagine that as the cast settles in for their week at this venue, their familiarity with its acoustics will at least address some of the show’s missteps in its earliest moments.

Runs until 12 March.

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