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review of private lives

by richard stewart

Right everyone, put down the mince pies and sherry: it’s time for a brand-new year at Bromley Little Theatre. The 2018 season has officially begun and brings with it another set of shows from your favourite North Street bakery-turned-playhouse. 2018 is looking to be a year themed on ‘family’: a casual glance down the season and nearly every play seems to be about sisters, parents, wives, husbands, relationships among friends and every other possible combination. It only seems right that January starts right off looking at marriage.

Famously written in four days during his recovery from illness in Shanghai, Noël Coward’s Private Lives looks at the turbulent relationship between its central characters, Elyot (Chris de Pury) and Amanda (Alison Green). Previously married, the two have since divorced and remarried, and the play begins as they each start a second honeymoon with their new spouses. Unfortunately, the new couples are staying in rooms next to each other in the same villa, and it’s only a matter of time before Elyot and Amanda bump into each other on the balcony and sparks of violent passion and passionate violence begin to flare between the two once more.

It’s an interesting set up to be sure, and I was rather looking forward to seeing how the rest of the honeymoon unfolded as Amanda and Elyot flip-flopped between renewed love and grinding inevitability, while trying to hide everything from their new husband and wife; young, fragile little Sibyl (Heather Phelps) and stoic, beefy gentleman Victor (Beric Wickens). The balcony scenes, however, barely cover the first act, making for a very short first half. After the interval we were whisked us off to Amanda’s flat in Paris, and the rest of the play concerns itself with Elyot and Amanda living together in sin. It did leave me feeling like this was a play of two very distinct halves, Act One more farcical comedy of errors compared with the post-interval intimacy of watching Elyot and Amanda’s toxic relationship in full private glory.

In our central relationship, Chris de Pury and Alison Green are inherently watchable, and perfectly judge how to ramp up from being sickeningly in love to sickeningly smashing each other’s faces in. There’s very little wasted standing around, and the pair fill every moment with business and character. A section with two whole minutes of deliberate silence (“Sollucks!”) would have been unwatchable if not for this perfectly directed and performed sense of character from them both. If anything, de Pury’s Elyot got a little too over the top in places, but it never fully tipped over into farce. Something about his eyes makes him perfect for this sort of high energy comedy, as anyone who saw him in 2014’s Boeing Boeing will know.

As our other other halves, Heather Phelps’ and Beric Wickens had far less to do, entirely absent from most of Act Two. As characters, it distinctly felt like they were just there to be in the way of Amanda and Elyot being able to be together from the off. Still, you can’t say they didn’t do their utmost with their appearances. Phelps’ dropping to the floor in over-the-top, hysterically ugly crying fits over the smallest insult will never stop being funny, while Wickens total impassivity was a lovely mirror to the chaos whirling around the flat, even if at times he stayed a little too emotionless and still when a touch more feeling would have been right.

A brief mention to the beautifully weary Jane Kortlandt, whose performance of a maid who clearly had no patience for the childish squabbles going on in her charge was impeccable, even if I’ve just written more words about her than she actually got to say. That’s how you do ‘small’ parts, actors.

So, Private Lives was a fine start to a promising 2018. January productions tend to get pushed to the wayside around Christmas and New Year, so it was good to have something intimate and fun to start us off. It may be a little dated now (the Lord Chamberlain declared the second half too risqué due to the central characters being – gasp – unmarried), but it oozes a definite sense of Noël Coward elegance that director Stevie Hughes clearly knows how to celebrate.