Private Lives

Chesil Theatre  Chesil Theatre, Winchester Anne Waggott 19 January 2024

There is something quintessentially English, set in time, yet somehow timeless and universal about a Noël Coward comedy… and therein lies the genius and appeal of his plays. I admit I was rather ambivalent about his works for a very long time – then I was asked to review nine of his plays in one day… and I was hooked!

Chesil Theatre have done him proud with their latest production, Private Lives. It’s a “stylish comedy of manners” in a tale about a bitterly divorced couple (Elyot and Amanda) who bump into each other again in a French hotel – while both are on honeymoon with their new spouses (Sybil and Victor). Love and hate can be two sides of the same coin, and never more so than for this estranged couple as they leave their respective partners and run off into the proverbial sunset together. However, once a tumultuous relationship, always a tumultuous relationship? So, will it be love overcomes all or another stormy encounter?

This is a superb production on every level, with as much care and attention given to the production elements as the insightful direction and excellent performances onstage. The set, costumes, makeup, Sybil’s wig and props are all evocative of the period. I have often been impressed by the quality of sound effects and atmospheric lighting at Chesil Theatre, and Tony Lawther has continued this tradition in style. The lighting is aesthetically delightful (moonlight balconies and Parisian morning sunlight in particular), while the wonderful background music is perfectly pitched and timed to the script, adding an extra hotel ambience throughout the first act, and the scratchy effect of the gramophone records seem so authentic in the apartment.

However, a perfect backdrop can be ruined by hapless performances… Not a chance of that here! The four actors are all outstanding in their roles: Alec Walters as the charming yet darkly misogynistic Elyot Chase, Helen Milton-Symes as his feisty and impulsive ex-wife (Amanda Prynne), and Steve Clark as her supposedly more benign and stable new husband (Victor Prynne). When all put in such first rate performances, it seems churlish to say anyone has an edge – and yet Hannah Ley is absolutely mesmerising as Elyot’s second wife, Sybil; her subtle facial expressions and ability to switch instantly and convincingly from besotted to insecure new bride, strong independent woman to one in the throes of a neurotic, melodramatic meltdown, are a masterclass in character acting.

Written in 1929 and first produced for the stage in 1930, Private Lives is as accurate a depiction of modern relationships as it is a reflection of corresponding relationships in the late 1920s. Divorce had only recently become more ‘acceptable’ for women as they were becoming more independent, challenging the stereotypes of the era, and against a backdrop of economic crisis and political unrest. Although often views as a farce, Private Lives contains sinister undertones as it touches on the darkness in Elyot and Amanda’s dysfunctional relationship; tones that may not sit well with a contemporary audience, with domestic violence and misogyny rearing their ugly heads, and yet Coward’s satirical wit and flamboyant style makes you laugh at the same time as you wince with a sharp intake of breath.

The crew should be commended for the swift (and quiet!) change of scenery during the interval. Chesil Theatre is a tiny, intimate venue, so a complete, unobtrusive change from outside adjoining hotel balconies to a beautifully dressed living room is testament to the often unappreciated skill of the backstage team.

Director Nicky Hubbard has ensured that this is a wonderful tribute to Coward’s gift, with a cracking (almost faultless) pace, sharp wit and intelligence portrayed throughout, multilayered characters, and the clipped RP tones of Coward’s era. If this is her first attempt at a ‘long featured’ production, I can’t wait to see what she directs next!

If you have a ticket for this sold out production, then you are in for a veritable treat – sit back and enjoy!