11 September 2023
Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’, written in 1930, has long been considered his most seminal work; though it opened to mixed reviews, it has been the subject of much debate and discussion; what is it really about and is it any good? This is not the time to write a literary treatise on the play, sometimes you just need to take it for what it is. Often referred to as a comedy of manners, it’s really more a case of a comedy of bad manners or adults behaving really badly. Plotwise it is a little thin; a couple (Amanda and Elyot), once married, find they are in adjoining suites with their new spouses whilst on honeymoon. The spark of their love is rekindled and they run off together, abandoning their new partners….
The dangers of performing Coward are that the plays can really drag and that impersonations of the writer’s voice can abound. Thankfully, in Andrew Beckett’s production, neither occur and what is presented is crisp, slick and highly entertaining. The cast whiz through the peppery dialogue with clarity and perfect diction thus setting aside any threat of longueurs; bringing far more laughs from the audience as a result.
Claire Amias appears to have played the role of Amanda many times – though that is not the case – so perfectly does she inhabit the role; the silvery laugh, the coquettish turn of the head, the look that kills – she is utterly joyful to watch. For a great Amanda you need a great Elyot and Steve Blacker-Barrowman is ideal; suave, devious and sharp – the two match each other blow for blow as they bicker and fight, make-up and then bicker all over again. Coward appeared to want to portray an example where the genders were on an equal footing; with these actors it works a treat.
Matching the leading roles are those of the spurned spouses. Holly Ashman is completely delightful as the young Sibyl; her switch between excited bride and tantrum-throwing ingenue is hilarious. Charlie Bryant is a wonderful physical actor and as the awkward, slightly dim, Victor, he offers a cracking portrayal of a man full of pent-up anger and frustration – it is very, very funny to watch.
As casting goes this is as good as it gets. Not to forgetting the final role, the housemaid Louise; this curious character is on stage for about five minutes in total; Bridget Lambert has patently been given some licence by the director and she makes the most of it; a comic gem.
Andrew Beckett directs with precision and flair and with an eye to get the most out of any available comedy; he doesn’t skimp on the wonderful pauses within the script and tempts the actors to push them as far as possible – it works so well. Beckett, is, once again, responsible for the set designs and here he really has to push the boat out – the first act set on a hotel terrace in France and the final two acts in a Parisian flat. Sumptuous and classy they are and make this a visual as well as an aural joy. Added to this are some stunning costume designs from Jan Huckle; Amanda’s golden evening gown is particularly eye-catching, but all capture the period, atmosphere and characters to a tee.
Coward added to the play the song ‘Someday I’ll Find You’ which adds a wonderful underscoring to a production which feels so authentic.
What is the play about? It’s a love story at its simplest and most obvious level. It may be about something more, but most will recognise the ups and downs of a relationship whilst watching Amanda and Elyot even if they don’t indulge in fights with cushions.
This is a classy production of the highest order and the whole Company brings it off in masterly fashion.
‘Private Lives’ runs until 16 September. Next week, the last play of the 2023 Season, Patrick Barlow’s hilarious version of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’. Tickets can be bought online at www.manorpavilion.com
Cast & Creatives
Elyot Chase – Steve Blacker-Barrowman
Amanda Prynne – Claire Amias
Sibyl Chase – Holly Ashman
Victor Prynne – Charlie Bryant
Louise – Bridget Lambert
Writer – Noel Coward
Director – Andrew Beckett
Design – Andrew Beckett
Lighting & Sound Operation & Design – Stage Tech Services
Costume Designer – Jan Huckle
Set Builders – Henry Hayward, James Prendergast
Set Assistant – Dominic McChesney
Deputy Stage Manager – Daniel Saint
Image – Andrew Beckett
Artistic Director – Paul Taylor-Mills
Season Associate Producer – Andrew Beckett