Festival 2012

Anna Chancellor Toby Stephens

Noël Coward’s Private Lives

Private Lives

Private Lives

Minerva Theatre

21 Sep - 27 Oct 2012

Overview

Elyot and Amanda, glamorous, rich and reckless, are divorced. Five years later, they meet again on the adjoining balconies of a Riviera hotel. Each is on honeymoon. Their passion instantly rekindled through this chance encounter, they fling themselves headlong into love and lust once more, without a thought for their new partners or what drove their marriage apart.

'One of the finest productions of the play
I have seen'

5 Star Rating THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

Brilliant and sophisticated, Private Lives dazzles with Coward’s irresistible dialogue, dramatic precision and acerbic wit.

Noël Coward’s plays include Hay Fever, Design for Living, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit.

Anna Chancellor’s theatre credits include Festival 2011’s South Downs and The Browning Version; The Last of the Duchess (Hampstead Theatre), Creditors (Donmar Warehouse, BAM) and The Observer (National Theatre). Television and film credits include Pram Face, The Hour, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Pride and Prejudice.

Toby Stephens’ theatre credits include Danton’s Death, The Real Thing, A Doll’s House and Coriolanus, and on screen Vexed, Jane Eyre and Die Another Day. More recently he has featured in Classic Chandler for BBC Radio 4.

Jonathan Kent has directed Sweeney Todd and A Month in the Country for Chichester. Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre for twelve years, he has an international career in both theatre and opera.

Supported by the Private Lives Commissioning Circle.

Private Lives is sponsored by

Festival 2012

Harwoods

Harwoods


Reviews

The Telegraph
5 Star Rating

If one could save only a single Coward play for posterity, it would have to be Private Lives (1930). Though Coward described it as “the lightest of light comedies”, the piece is a marvel, a work that transcends its period setting and still proves startlingly fresh, funny and unexpectedly moving. It needs to be played with the most delicate of touches, with speed, intelligence and style, but in really good productions, like this one, there is depth to the comedy, too, and a sense of darkness beyond the laughter.

Jonathan Kent directs one of the finest productions of the play I have seen, with tremendous performances from Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens as the self-obsessed lovers, Amanda and Elyot, who can’t live together and can’t live apart.

Any staging of this play is a risk, because its success entirely depends on whether the actors playing the leading roles have the right chemistry between them. You really need to feel that this is a pair that have great sex together but drive each other mad when they aren’t in bed. Perhaps that’s precisely why the sex is so good.

Stephens and Chancellor ignite thrilling sparks even as they knock lumps out of each other. Theirs are the most persuasively sex-drenched performances in Private Lives since Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan set the West End ablaze 11 years ago.

In the great central act, post-coital languor gives way to seething irritation, as the pair wind each other up with sadistic precision, before exploding into no-holds-barred physical violence just as their abandoned new spouses make their splendidly timed comic entrance.

I haven’t seen Toby Stephens give a better performance than he does here, following in the footsteps of his parents, Robert Stephens and Maggie Smith, who were a famous Elyot and Amanda in the Sixties.

Right from the start he suggests an edge of danger beneath Elyot’s witty well-spoken manner, gazing on his vacuous new wife as if she were a porcelain doll that part of him would already like to smash. This is a man who really believes “that certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”. The miracle is that Stephens’s Elyot combines such sentiments with sudden moments of heart-melting charm.

Anna Chancellor is equally fine as Amanda, palpably and unashamedly beyond the first flush of youth, and already recoiling from her ploddingly conventional new husband Victor’s touch in the first act. There is truth as well as wit in her declaration she is “jagged with sophistication” and the coup de foudre when she catches sight of Elyot is palpable.

These thrilling star performances are accompanied by fine work in the supporting roles. Victor may be a dull old stick but Anthony Calf memorably captures his decency, too, while Anna-Louise Plowman’s shrill, whining Sibyl makes you feel she deserves everything she gets.

Kent’s constantly alert and gripping production is further enhanced by Anthony Ward’s stylish designs and music ranging from Django Reinhardt to Stravinsky as well as Coward himself. This is a show that offers two hours of continuous pleasure.

 The Guardian
4 Star Rating

How do you play Noël Coward's famous comedy? For its verbal musicality or its emotional reality? Overstress either and the play suffers. Jonathan Kent's revival gets the balance just right – and reminds us that the piece's appeal lies in its joyously irresponsible defence of bohemian privilege against bourgeois rectitude. For more than 80 years, Coward's play has been quietly taking the piss out of its middle-class audience's strongest beliefs.

The central casting in Kent's production is spot-on. Toby Stephens lends Elyot, who absconds with his ex-wife while they are in the midst of honeymooning with new partners, a languourous drawl and a wicked temper: even the way his dangling left hand flicks cigarette-ash over the balcony of his Deauville hotel suggests a mounting irritation with his second spouse. There is a similar fretful impatience to the way Anna Chancellor's steely Amanda brushes aside her new husband's eager kisses. This both motivates Elyot and Amanda's flight and lays the ground for the great second act in which the couple hurl themselves at each other, and the furniture, with a love-hate intensity that momentarily recalls Strindberg. But what Stephens and Chancellor bring out perfectly is the couple's childish egotism and the strangely androgynous nature of a relationship in which Elyot's sulks and flounces are met by Amanda's ruthless body-blows.

The test of a good Private Lives also lies in the quality of the rejected partners. Anthony Calf's Victor is a precise study of a determined, clean-cut rationalist who finds himself hopelessly at sea in a violently irrational situation. Anna-Louise Plowman's Sibyl is also skittish and frilly in a way that was once considered traditionally feminine. And this, if anything, is the point that comes most strongly out of this immensely enjoyable production. Victor and Sibyl embody what Shaw once jokingly called the "manly man" and the "womanly woman", while Elyot and Amanda exist on a level where male and female tendencies prove intriguingly and excitingly flexible.

The Times
4 Star Rating

Nobody should be fooled by the topiary brilliance on the page: Noël Coward’s sharpest play requires the runaway lovers Elyot and Amanda to conduct a masterclass in lounging, prowling, brawling, precision flippancy and emotional U-turns. These jagged sophisticates must also arouse at least fleeting pity, and skillfully prevent you from developing a decent sympathy for the dull spouses they betray.

For a brief uneasy time I wondered whether Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor were going to fulfill it. In Jonathan Kent’s production, although the design is elegantly 1930s, they eschew the traditional clipped Coward-y manner. With his quiff and blazer Stephens is more like an overgrown modern public-schoolboy, and the timelessly wired-haired Chancellor as assertive as a young Germaine Greer. There is little sense that they are defying a ruling world of “futile moralists who want to make life unbearable”.

But the irritable spats with their new spouses on the balconies are pacy and fun, as she confronts Anthony Calf’s aggravating tweedy Victor and he snaps at the kittenishly controlling Sibyl (Anna-Louise Plowman). There is a lovely moment when Elyot, reeling in shock at finding his sinuous, black-clad former wife on the adjacent balcony, turns to find his new bride in sickening baby pink with marabou trim. Stephens delivers a very un-Cowardish “Aaaargh!”. And as the reunited lovers try to persuade their new honeymoon partners to get out of Deauville, they do become believable: two addicts scrabbling vainly not to slide back towards the old ways.

When they get to the Paris flat, where enervated eroticism and squabbling culminate in a violent fight, the modernity of their manner makes the mutual-fantasy element in the script (the imaginary Duchesses and the “Solomon Isaacs” deal) feel a bit odd. But it usefully shows up something too often underplayed: Coward’s deliberately, earthily squalid demonstration that their worst rows are rooted in noting more than his sexual vanity and her heeding selfishness.

Later, Stephens’s cruel parodies of her social “poise” are brilliant, as is the crisp moment when each in turn curls up foetally on the couch, like grumpy teenagers threatening to make everyone sorry when they’re dead.

So despite early qualms it became a refreshing (and funny) take on the play. The jilted spouses have their high moments near the end, and so does Maggie McCarthy in her cameo as the maid. As the only character in the play that does any work, she makes the most of her contempt. Coward knew we needed that.


The Independent
4 Star Rating

This year's Chichester season ends on a high with Jonathan Kent's wonderfully fresh, stylish and razor-sharp account of Noel Coward's finest comedy. It's the best Private Lives we have seen since Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan struck sparks off each other in the West End a decade ago.

Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor possess, as a stage duo, just about everything you need to play Elyot and Amanda, the divorcees who, five years after their split, meet on adjacent hotel balconies while on honeymoon with their new spouses.

Their sexual chemistry has a violent volatility that suggests that this is a union simultaneously hatched in heaven and in hell. The irresistible attraction rekindled in the famous balcony scene is both achingly romantic and deliciously funny here, with Toby Stephens's drawling public-schoolboy-ish Elyot strangely affecting as he succumbs to its power well in advance of Chancellor's taller, headstrong, thoroughbred Amanda, the epitome of “jagged sophistication”, who continues to fight it with brittle bravado.

Gender stereotypes are being drolly undermined so it's no wonder that Stephens lets out a long, involuntary groan of disgust when Anna Louise-Plowman's clingy, squalling Sibyl, his new bride, scuttles on in a queasily girlish pink outfit. Chancellor likewise wastes little time disguising her impatience with stuffy Victor, who, in Anthony Calf's spot-on portrayal, is all tweedy decency floundering out of its depth in a world of spoilt, incoherent egotists. 

On the lips of Kent's central couple, the staccato, mannered music of Coward's decoy-like dialogue is eloquent with the troubled things that are being left unsaid. The balance between artifice and emotional realism in a comedy that sometimes feels reminiscent of Strindberg and prophetic of Edward Albee in its focused depiction of a driven love-hate relationship is beautifully achieved here thanks to the intimacy of the Minerva studio and the thrust stage that brings the escalating spats in the Parisian love-nest in the second act right down into the audience's laps.

That long, plot-less switchback in exquisitely well-paced here. As they veer between post-coital languor and apartment-smashing aggression, Stephens and Chancellor brilliantly demonstrate that, far from constituting an interruption, these fights are the continuation of intense intimacy by other means – a form of foreplay.

Flouncing around in their dressing gowns and communicating in mocking parodies whenever possible, they make you feel both a pang of envy and of gratitude that this glamorously self-dramatising, solipsistic realm is exclusive to them.

Evening Standard
4 Star Rating

One of the many delights of Private Lives (1930) is the way in which, when cast astutely, it can reveal hidden comic talents in an actor not usually known for laughs.

It worked a treat for Matthew Macfadyen two years ago and does the same here for Toby Stephens. I’ve never seen Stephens smile on stage before — and I’ve never seen him better than this.

He has been blessed to have been paired with the magisterial Anna Chancellor, an actress currently in an abundantly rich vein of form both on stage and screen. The pair, as reluctantly reunited divorcees Amanda and Elyot, are gloriously at home with the glittering lines of Noël Coward’s high comedy and surmount the challenges of Act Two, where many have come unstuck before, with ease.

Having confirmed Norfolk is very flat and binned previous spouses, Sybil (Stephens’s real-life wife Anna-Louise Plowman) and Victor (Anthony Calf), in order to run away from their second honeymoons at the end of Act One, the next scene sees them locked in a repeated, potentially repetitive, cycle of swooning and screaming, as old tensions threaten to scupper their relationship once more.

Chancellor and Stephens have a cherishably easy chemistry as they sprawl about Amanda’s opulent Parisian flat (well done, designer Anthony Ward) in silk pyjamas. Yet crucially, behind all the sparkling flippancy which is delivered with ease in Jonathan Kent’s stylish production, they convince us that there’s something really at stake, a history, a love, a lifetime.

Stephens has a roguish twinkle that occasionally clouds over into the look of a petulant little boy, while Chancellor captures with precision Amanda’s lightning-quick changes of humour. Chichester’s terrific 2012 Festival season might be drawing to a close, but the West End surely beckons for this lot.


The Company

Creative Team

Gabrielle Dawes

Casting Director

Gabrielle Dawes

Paul Groothuis

Sound Designer

Paul Groothuis

Mark Henderson

Lighting Designer

Mark Henderson

Jonathan Kent

Director

Jonathan Kent

Matthew Scott

Music

Matthew Scott

Anthony Ward

Designer

Anthony Ward


Cast

Anna Chancellor

Anna Chancellor

Amanda Prynne

Toby Stephens

Toby Stephens

Elyot Chase

Anthony Calf

Anthony Calf

Victor Prynne

Maggie McCarthy

Maggie McCarthy

Louise

Anna-Louise Plowman

Anna-Louise Plowman

Sibyl Chase



Booking Info

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes (including one 20 minute interval)

Tickets:

Previews/Press Nights £23.50
Evenings/Matinees £29.50

Discounts and concessions available
Terms & Conditions



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