The TheatreguideLondon Review
What may well be one of the most perfect comedies ever written is here revived in a production that starts slowly but is at its best as wonderful as you could possibly ask for.
Reminder: a divorced couple each remarry and unluckily choose the same hotel for their new honeymoons. You could probably write the rest yourself, though it almost certainly wouldn't be as witty, stylish and delightful as the bauble Noel Coward created as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence (with the young Laurence Olivier as the other man).
Here the star-crossed couple are played by Matthew Macfadyen and Kim Cattrall, both perhaps better known from television, but both with solid theatrical credentials.
Macfadyen at first seems a bit too stiff and stolid as Elyot, but he eventually relaxes into the role, finding just the right blend of languid frivolity and underlying depths of feeling. And Cattrall brings a kittenish quality to Amanda that may at first startle those expecting more understated elegance and glamour, but that sexiness soon wins you over, adding new and enriching colours to the character.
So those who expect this play to be just a matter of oh-so-beautiful people posing oh-so-elegantly while spouting oh-so-witty epigrams may be a bit disconcerted, and for that reason the first act, which is usually the brightest and most scintillating, may not quite catch fire.
But it is the second act, too often played as just filler on the way to the climax, that is this production's high point. (In keeping with modern practice, Acts Two and Three are run together, with only a single interval after Act One.)
Here is where we get to see Amanda and Elyot together as they rediscover not only their irresistible love for each other but also their irresistible impulses to bicker and fight over anything and everything. And director Richard Eyre and his two stars bring out all the farce, all the deeper character comedy and all the subtle hints of sadness in the situation, making the central scene of the play sparkle as I've never seen it before.
For many, this is a play of wit and elegance, and it has almost as many iconic lines as you'll find in Wilde or Shakespeare. But it is also a play about a couple who choose to be flippant and trivial because they know that seriousness hurts too much - and to find and communicate that level without breaking the fragile comic tone is a major accomplishment for director and actors.
The two other characters (there's also a maid) have too often been lifeless straight men, but Lisa Dillon makes Sybil (as in 'Don't quibble, Sybil' - surely a line that Coward had to pause and giggle at when he wrote it) simultaneously adorable and an utter pain in the neck and candidate for justifiable homicide, while Simon Paisley Day finds in Victor a man repeatedly and hilariously flummoxed by people who just won't play by the received codes of behaviour.
Two relatively minor complaints, one with designer Rob Howell, who makes Amanda and Elyot's hideaway truly bizarre looking (though he does set up a good sight gag involving a fishbowl), and one with director Eyre, who mis-stages and mis-choreographs the very final sequence, so that its ironies and surprises don't register as strongly as they should.
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Review - Private Lives - Vaudeville 2010