Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge – until November 27th 2021
Reviewed by Steph Lott
You know you are in for a good performance when the audience spontaneously applauds the two lead characters when they first walk on stage and this was certainly true at last night’s performance of Private Lives. Without doubt, Nigel Havers as Elyot, and Patricia Hodge as Amanda, merited this reception. They display elegance, flair and excellent comic timing and charisma as the divorced couple who cannot live with or without each other. Nigel Havers has chosen the show that is often considered as Noel Coward’s masterpiece as the opening production for his newly-founded theatre company. It’s a sharp elegantly observed piece which comments on the relationships and morality of society’s upper classes of the period. Written in 1930 it’s a comedy of manners in three acts. I did wonder whether the script would be uncomfortably dated and whether Amanda and Elyot would be convincingly portrayed by Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge as they are more than double the age Coward wrote Elyot and Amanda to be: 70 and 75.
However I needn’t have worried. Coward’s words still fizz with wit and the story and comedy is as relevant now as then. The chemistry between the two old flames is quickly established. Nigel Havers is suave and slick, cruel and rude as the self-obsessed Elyot. But it is Patricia Hodge who steals the show as Amanda. She is poised, elegant with such charm to her performance, showing that she is more than a match for the bullying Elyot. It is wonderful to see a role from that era where a woman holds her own as an equal to the male character. She has agency and power and isn’t just window dressing.
It’s interesting that they are so much older than the characters were written by Coward, but it works. There was much chortling amongst those of us in the audience of a certain age when Amanda turns down Elyot’s advances on the sofa on the grounds that they’ve had a heavy meal, and so he gets up in strop but is caught by a sudden leg cramp. Ah – the joys of middle-aged love… Natalie Walter is Elyot’s nice-but-dim new wife Sybil, naïve and clingy, who is terribly insecure about her new husband. I did find that Sybil’s voice is pitched so high it’s irritating and the stupidity of the character means that it is hard to feel very much sympathy for her. However I think she comes into her own at the climax of the play!
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Victor is very dull, but is also likeable and brings spirit to the second half when he squares up to Elyot.
Coward’s script is full of caustic wit and sparkling dialogue; chemistry is needed between the actors to make it come to life. Christopher Luscombe’s direction shows the ebb and flow as Havers and Hodge bicker and bitch, stuck in a never-ending cycle of hatred and passion. Simon Higlett’s set provides a wonderful backdrop to the play. The first set is beautiful, opening with the façade of the honeymoon hotel with ornate wrought-iron balconies and stripy awnings, with the atmosphere created by subtle light, seagulls and music. He has also created a beautiful Parisian flat for Amanda with lovely Art Deco detailing and luxurious furniture.
The four members of the cast work well together and are all strong at their craft, bringing a demanding play to life, and portraying heightened emotions without overdoing it. There is so much to enjoy about this very entertaining revival, but it is Hodges’ wonderful performance that is worth the ticket.