A wise man once said, and I know he did because I was there when he said it, “every time Handel’s Water Music is performed, someone hears it for the first time – think how lucky that person is.” Judging from the average age of the theatregoers at Wednesday night’s performance of Private Lives at Chichester, I would hazard a guess that none of them was seeing it for the first time. As far as we could work out, there were no younger people at all. Is Noel Coward now confined to being entertainment for the middle class and elderly?
I’ll leave you to ponder that question as I tell you about this inaugural production of the Nigel Havers Theatre Company that started touring a few weeks ago in Bath and will continue its rigorous schedule through to April next year, with a December break for Nigel to do his regular stint at the Palladium panto.
I’m sure you know the set-up (unless you are one of my much prized younger readers!) Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Sybil (Natalie Walter) are on their honeymoon in Deauville, as are Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge). In fact, they’re in adjacent rooms in the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda are on their second marriages; and, here’s the rub, they were formerly married to each other. Imagine the horror when they bump into each other on their adjoining balconies. It doesn’t take them long to dump their new spouses and flee to Amanda’s posh flat in Paris. Will they live happily ever after this time, or will their old cantankerousness get in the way? And will Victor and Sybil stand for it? If you weren’t there for that first night that opened the brand new Phoenix Theatre in 1930, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda, and some unknown chap called Laurence Olivier as Victor, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to catch this production and find out!
With its timeless story and glittering script, this is a deceptively difficult play to get absolutely right and a dangerously easy one to get quite wrong. It’s very easy for the star turns who inevitably play Elyot and Amanda to hog the limelight – Coward naturally made them the stars of the show and underwrote the parts of their new love interests to keep all the attention to Gertie and himself. So the play can feel quite unbalanced. In this production, it’s quite hard to imagine how Elyot and Sybil might have originally fallen for each other – I didn’t feel like they were natural bedfellows, so to speak; but you can easily see how Victor and Amanda did, which gives the story a little more depth.
The show is 100% played for laughs, which is fair enough; but it does mean that you occasionally have to catch your breath when the arguments turn into plain and simple physical domestic abuse. Face-slapping, a 78rpm being smashed over a head, and a considerable punch to the chops all elicit slapstick laughs but it’s a startling shock to see how things were very different in 1930. From a technical point of view, by the way, the stage combat between Havers and Hodge is outstandingly realistic – fantastic work!
Simon Higlett’s design for Act One is functional but perhaps those balconies are not quite as glamorous as one might expect for such hoity-toity guests at a top class resort. The design of the Paris flat though is exquisite, a veritable flambé of velvety reds and art deco delight, and elegant furnishings without overdoing the decadent. In a nice touch, the accompanying music is all composed by Coward pre-1930, to give it an extra hint of veracity. You’d say Coward was being big-headed, but there’s no indication in the original text that the music played was his, so it’s generations-later, second-hand big-headedness!
I think most people will have booked to see this to see for themselves how the two leads work, tussle and entertain together – and they do an absolutely splendid job. Nigel Havers cuts his usual refined figure and is a perfect voice for Coward’s witty, roué, spiteful charm. He is superb in those moments where the elegant façade shatters and the rather grubbier character comes to light – such as in his cowardly lack of resistance to Victor’s understandable aggression or when he gets his leg trapped after a spot of sofa-athletics with Amanda. Patricia Hodge is, of course, a natural for Amanda; she makes the character’s words come alive with effortless ease, and brings the house down with her complaint against Elyot’s love-making that it’s too soon after dinner. The pair share an immaculate stage presence and they work together like a dream.
Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was ageist of me to wonder how credible it is for two such theatre veterans to be playing roles that Coward would have imagined to be around thirty years old. I was only thinking out loud. But there is some relevance to the point in as much as Coward would have envisaged Victor being older than Amanda – that’s definitely not the case in this production. But it’s pretty easy to forget the age differences and take it all at face value.
Ms Walter and Mr Bruce-Lockhart give excellent support as the wronged other halves, Ms Walter in particular squeaking in frantic fury at the way she has been treated, only then to turn her ire on Mr B-L in the final reel. Aicha Kossoko plays Louise the maid with a sumptuous French accent. The very full midweek Chichester audience threw itself into enjoying the performance, with several long laugh moments and applause breaks for whenever Ms Hodge decided to sing. That rather old-fashioned, respectful matinee-style appreciation for a star performer or singing moment almost underlined how very dignified and classic the whole experience felt.
If the future for Coward is to attract older patrons to enjoy a nostalgia trip rather than encouraging younger theatregoers to discover his wonders, at least that’s good box office news for now, as this production is selling like hot cakes wherever it goes. Long term though, I’m wondering if his appeal will last. Things change, then change again; but Coward doesn’t, he’s constant as the northern star, being too recent to survive drastic updating but probably too historical to attract the young. Time will tell! In the meantime, this is a delightful production, riddled with expertise, delivered by several safe pairs of hands, and fully worthy of your theatre-going funds.
Production photos by Tristram Kenton