David Puch; Theatre Royal Bath Productions; Nigel Havers Theatre Company
Lowry Lyric Theatre
February 15-19,2022; 2hr inc interval
Nigel Havers, probably best known for running as Lord Andrew Lindsay in Chariots of Fire and playing gigolo Lewis Archer in Coronation Street, has formed The Nigel Havers Theatre Company and brings its first production, Noel Coward’s Private Lives to a tour slot at The Lowry’s large Lyric Theatre.
It's a fiery comedy of fighting passion and class, and who better than Havers as male lead Elyot and Patricia Hodge as his equally-starry Amanda, leading to a production of guaranteed status, familiarity and healthy box office.
The story is set, for new readers, on the French Riviera and in Paris and concerns the now-divorced couple who have not only married new partners, but happen to have booked adjoining, balconied honeymoon rooms in the same hotel. Their marriage had been intense, tempestuous and passionate. Will the new marriages succeed, or will old passions be rekindled?
The play debuted in 1930 to a mixed reception, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the lead roles. It has been a staple ever since – and often a star vehicle – though with Coward’s sharp flashes of wit and imaginative language casting a critical eye on rich sophisticates it doesn’t require stars, just believable actors with superb comic timing.
How does it work today, with leading actors in their seventies, more than twice the age of the original cast?
Private Lives is only eight years short of its 100th birthday, and unsurprisingly reflects some outmoded attitudes. More surprising, perhaps, is how well some of those attitudes have survived. The audience gasps at both.
Are Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge too old, both in their seventies? Both are of similar age, and with similar outstanding cheekbones; they’ve always looked good, always had their own army of fans. They’ve certainly aged well and so must be on any casting director’s list for older, still active and attractive character roles. A press night audience with an age demographic perhaps more familiar to matinees certainly didn’t find their passions too surprising.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Victor and Natalie Walter as Sibyl (the new partners) are a vision of convention, allowing a glimpse into the future, Victor destined and willing to become a carer and Sibyl an excitable and slightly screechy woman who will follow the norm towards dependence. The brief appearance of Aicha Kossoko as French maid Louise beautifully destroys the stereotype; she appears to be the only person with any control over themselves or the situation.
Act II is the weakest; in this production the warring element is not fully embedded within the passionate relationship but comes across as bickering – more a matter of habit, possibly an acquired addiction, rather than as a core element of this particular relationship.
When writing to Gertrude Lawrence on finishing the script, Coward said “Copulation has been the basis of the dear old British Drama for so long, we might just as well salute it”. Private Lives is surviving almost as well, and there’s an undoubted joy in seeing a brilliantly-crafted traditional structure of a play with a start, a middle and an end, of sorts.
Info and tickets here