Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Private Lives – The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Micahel Buffong
Reviewer: Richard Hall
[Rating: 4/5]

Written by Noel Coward in only four days in 1929, as a star vehicle for himself and his lifelong friend, Gertrude Lawrence, PRIVATE LIVES has become an enduring classic of 20th Century drama. It is often billed as Coward’s greatest comedy but in spite of the dazzling dialogue and irresistible one liners, it is for the most part a bitter sweet and desolate play.

In Michael Buffong’s excellent revival at the Royal Exchange, the darker side of the play is brought fully to the fore, especially in the scenes when divorced couple Elyot and Amanda are alone on stage. Reunited in bizarre circumstances, honeymooning with their new spouses at the same hotel in France, the former couple soon return to tantalising and teasing each other in equal measure, as they resume their volatile relationship. Played as comedy, the relationship between Elyot and Amanda is to begin with highly amusing but as it starts to break down, even Coward’s sophisticated wit cannot disguise some of the more shocking aspects of the play such as physical and verbal abuse.

Having deservedly recently won a Manchester Evening News Theatre Best Actor Award for his performance as Higgins in the Royal Exchange’s production of PYGMALION, Simon Robson is a formidable Elyot. In playing the part he appears to have merely swapped Higgins shabby clothes for a set of smarter suits from Saville Row. Robson is the master of portraying languid gentlemen of a certain age and his performance echoes that of Coward’s in the role, about which a critic wrote, that his “maddening smile... would incite an archangel to murder.” A regular at the Royal Exchange, Robson is an exciting actor who always delivers a captivating and powerful performance. As his foil, Imogen Stubbs as Amanda is perfect casting. Her natural beauty hides a will of iron that is more than a match for her former husband. Together Robson and Stubbs dominate the stage, strutting around like two spoilt peacocks intent on self destruction. Theirs is a passion that uncontrolled could surely kill. Congratulations are due to the Royal Exchange’s casting department for pairing these two great actors together.

In the roles of the spurned spouses, Clive Hayward and Joanna Page provide solid support and Ruth Johnson makes a brief but memorable appearance as a French maid. Director Buffong succeeds brilliantly in capturing the period feel of the piece as well as breathing new life into Coward’s familiar but at times, (for a modern audience at least), disturbing play. Strongly recommended.

Runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 9 April 
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