It’s hard to imagine that there could be a version of Private Lives that’s as good as the Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan version from 2001. Every subsequent time this play has been performed the earlier production is referenced – and justifiably so, given that it was a brilliant interpretation with a stellar cast and Alan Rickman has hardly appeared in the West End since!
But, the 2012 Chichester Festival production, which transferred to the West End this week, may change all that. Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor star as Elyot and Amanda who arrive at adjoining Deauville hotel suites on honeymoon with their respective new spouses, shocked to find their former love next door. Elyot has married the tepid Sibyl, and Amanda the dull Victor. When they see each other again the chaos begins. The partnership between Stephens and Chancellor has fantastic chemistry and it’s easy to see how Elyot and Amanda are unstoppably drawn and repelled by each other. Stephens’s Elyot is less bitingly sarcastic and dry than Alan Rickman’s version, more cheeky with frayed edges – a man still attractive and charming, but aging and easily riled, even by the placid nature of his new young wife. Chancellor’s Amanda meanwhile is every bit his match, played with a wildness and near hysteria at times that always remains just the right side of believable; unable to resist Elyot’s charms but frustrated by her inability to do so. One of the interesting things about this production is a sense of the darkness underneath the glossy words and apparent triviality – here are two people trapped in a destructive cycle which began before the period we see, and will repeat into the future, dragging more Sibyls and Victors along with them.
This is arguably Noel Coward’s finest play, written in just 3 days with hardly a word wasted, and feeling as fresh now as it did in the 1930s. The set design by Anthony Ward is impressive, from the romantic balconies of northwest France, to a stunning art deco flat when the action moves to Amanda’s Parisian bolthole (great use of a rotating stage between acts I and II) – if you can tear your eyes away from the cast this set is so intricately detailed you won’t be able to take it all in even though 2 acts are set there.
My only gripe is that it’s a short evening (one interval and the curtain is down by 9.30pm), and the final moments happened so quickly that the audience didn’t realise the play was over! But that aside, this is an almost perfect production and well worth seeing! Is it as good as the Rickman / Duncan version… I can’t decide, but it’s very very close!