Private Lives Royal Lyceum

Noel Coward’s glamorous, witty play, set in the “Parisien riviera” town of Deauville and in an up-market apartment in Paris, can at first take seem slight and trivial. Dealing as it does with a small cast of utterly self-centred – no, make that self-obsessed - and generally unlikable characters who seem possessed of a great deal of wealth and far too much spare time, it would hardly appear to contain the necessary ingredients for a great night at the theatre. Ah, but this is, after all, vintage (1930 to be exact) Coward at his wittiest and most waspish and so transcends this unpromising premise. The central characters of Elyot and Amanda – roles he wrote for himself and Gertrude Lawrence – have married and gone through an acrimonious divorce. As the play opens, they each arrive to spend the first night of their honeymoon with their new partners to find they are in adjoining rooms. They find themselves waiting for their new spouses on the hotel balcony.

Initially, a verbal war breaks out as they reopen old wounds and John Hopkins and Kirsty Besterman deliver Coward’s barbs with marvelous timing. It has to be said that while much of this is as true today as it was then: Elyot’s “It doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous” crushed by Amanda’s retort that “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous”, there are some lines (“certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”) that nowadays elicit only a sharp intake of breath.

But the sniping soon turns to reminiscing, they quarrel with their new partners and head off to Amanda’s Paris apartment together. Once there, passions run high as they rediscover that they cannot live with each other without bickering, however hard they might try.

The verbal sparring becomes physical, and when Amanda’s husband Victor (Ben Deery) and Elyot’s new bride Sybil (Emily Woodward) arrive, they are rolling around the floor fighting. “It’s disgusting” says Sybil, but in truth she and Victor disgust each other as much as their wayward spouses and eventually they are left screaming at each other while Amanda and Elyot flee.

So, slight and trivial? No, not at all. This is a study of intimacy and volatile, mutually destructive relationships that lurks beneath a veneer of flippancy and emerges in the hands of this more than capable cast under the astute direction of Martin Duncan as a relevant piece of modern theatre. With a good few laughs along the way.

And praise, too, is due to Francis O’Connor for sumptuous set and costume design.

Jim Welsh