Private Lives Review

Donmar Warehouse London WC2 – until 27th May 2023

Reviewed by Philip Brown


Marc  Brenner

This 1930, brilliantly scripted play by Noel Coward, superbly acted by the four player cast is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking entertainment.  I imagine it was originally written for the amusement of the metropolitan elite of its era, but this production (Director – Michael Longhurst), not updated for current times, should still resonate with a wider audience nostalgically primed by television and cinema offerings over the years and its essentially timeless study of the human condition.

There are elements of farce, slapstick, and tragicomedy throughout a performance that has the potential for several glitches but is as smooth as polished steel.  There are many comedic moments – possibly more laugh out loud moments than on offer in many a pure comedy –  but this was a long way from being pure.  It was more a behind the scenes examination of a fundamentally toxic relationship and how easily and quickly two impulsive, excessively passionate but unsuited lovers can goad each other into shocking violence, as well as leaving a wider wake of destruction.

The play opens with Elyot Chase (played by Stephen Mangan) and Sybil Chase (Laura Carmichael) on the balcony of their seaside hotel in Deauville on the first night of their honeymoon, having married 4 months after meeting.  As luck would have it, his former wife, now Amanda Prynne (Rachael Stirling) and her brand new husband Victor Prynne (Sargon Yelda) occupy the room with the adjacent balcony, affording not only obvious scope for comedy, but Elyot and Amanda the means to rekindle their relationship. as well as the occasional glimpse of the turbulence to come, necessitating the introduction of a “safe” word to ward off escalating intemperance – Solomon Isaacs.  The action moves rapidly on to the couple’s new love nest in Amanda’s Paris apartment.  

The switch of an imaginatively conceived stage set from evocative art deco balcony overlooking a simulated sea to lovely, period Paris flat is accomplished impressively and seamlessly mid Act 1 (Designer Hidegard Bechtler).  The attention to period detail is exquisite, and the choreography of the Paris scenes is beautifully designed and well executed (Fight Director Kate Waters and Movement Director Chi-San Howard).

Stephen Mangan (playing Elyot Chase) does a decent job of a challenging role – suitably entitled, flippant and possessive, with low emotional intelligence – pleading with Sybil, “Don’t ask why – give in to me!”.  His comic timing and instincts are immaculate and he shows off some versatility with dance, piano playing and catching a thrown chocolate/object in his mouth).  Nevertheless, it felt as if something was missing – possibly a sophistication or elegance one might expect from a member of the privileged classes.  

Rachael Stirling (Amanda Prynne) was simply superb as Elyot’s former wife – totally convincing.  She had the benefit of some delicious lines – “I can’t bear to think I’m married to such rugged grandeur” of Victor Prynne; “it doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous so soon after dinner” to Elyot; and “that’s the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids  bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle”.   

As supporting actors, Laura Carmichael (the angelic Sybil Chase) and Sargon Yelda (the excessively polite but humourless Victor Prynne) play their parts well as new spouses curious about the previous incumbents, yet resistant to being dominated by their new partners.  Sargon Yelda as Victor, in particular, has the telling line “if I start giving into you as early as this, our lives would become unbearable”.  

They eventually appear again having tracked Elyot and Amanda down to the Paris flat one evening, just as their affair spectacularly unravels.  The following morning, all four indulge in a post mortem of events, liberally punctuated with flippant retorts and offence taken, as well as possibly the funniest episode in the whole play when Amanda serves coffee and brioche, with attitude, to the assembled company.  Mangan’s performance at this point is inspired,  In the ensuing fall-out, the abandoned spouses, Sybil and Victor, assume centre stage when Victor’s usual calm and considerate facade eventually cracks in the face of Sybil’s self denial and the insults start to fly.  Meanwhile, Eliot and Amanda sneak out together.  It appears love might conquer all…

I wonder how often in the real world, the “cant live with each other, cant live without each other” condition occurs.  The Donmar has taken a bold step in reviving something so humourous but with such emphasis on domestic violence and morally negligent actions.  It’s repugnant but feels real.  This is drama at its best. And in a world where we are barely allowed to be outrageously flippant in public anymore for fear of cancellation or worse, this play feels liberating.