Private Lives – Review

Michael Prescott
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Noel Coward’s Private Lives was the second in the CinemaLive/Digital Theatre series of West End productions (after the excellent Merrily We Roll Along), as previewed by us a couple of weeks back.

The play consists of just five characters – two main, two supporting and a small role spoken entirely in French (don’t ask) – as two former lovers reunite whilst Honeymooning on adjacent balconies with their respective new partners. The potential for farce, comedy and trademark Coward wit is therefore easy to see, and it doesn’t disappoint.

The dialogue is sharp and quick, and the actors (especially the lead roles, played by Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens) capably deal with such demands. Both are very good as the reckless upper-class duo, but Chancellor in particular excels as Amanda whilst Stephens (looking like a middle-aged Benedict Cumberbatch) becomes progressively funnier.

One of the things that theatre does better than film is to provide more of a gender balance, and the casts of both this and Merrily – plus the standout performances by Chancellor here and Jenna Russell there – very much proves that point. Interestingly, gender and perceived societal roles also have an important part to play in Private Lives.

Elyot (Stephens) attempts to toy with the equally raucous Amanda and resorts to violence when he isn’t afforded his way. Victor, her new but equally ill-fitting husband, provides a much more gentle touch but attempts to smother her influence with cuddles and condescension. Given that Coward’s play was originally conceived in 1930, such assurance in handling the issue is to be praised, and will impress (and surprise) any first-time viewers.

And this brings us onto a far broader issue. What’s appealing about these productions is that they provide accessibility for a UK-wide (indeed, even worldwide) audience at their convenience, allowing theatre experts, lovers and those with a passing interest alike to share this enjoyment in a communal setting.

The cinematic elements mean that the theatrical experience is not replicated but adapted. Close-ups provide particular usefulness here since the emotion and reactions are primarily through facial expressions in Private Lives. There’s also the opportunity for the director to focus attention on a particular character – as in a film – instead of the potential wandering eye of the theatre audience member.

The shared entertainment aspect, as already mentioned, is not lost. The screening I was at was well-attended, particularly in regards to the older crowd (which is a big boost to cinemas). In fact, Private Lives was the third-most watched show of the day around the UK (on Thurs 6th Feb) demonstrating the appetite of the audience more than anything else ever could.

Though it remains closer to humorous than hilarious for its entirety, the tone remains consistently funny and warm. It’s a curiously-arranged affair with the first act clocking in at 67 minutes, leaving just 29 further minutes for the post-interval scenes. However this does allow us to revel in the company of the constantly bickering front two – almost to the point of excess – enabling the audience to understand the resentment that inevitably resurfaces. Cue curtain!

Curiously enough, the finale doesn’t aim towards something being totally resolved or heading in a single, given direction. Much of theatre relies upon the premise of circularity and inevitability, but Private Lives suggests the possibility of numerous or alternate endings (a la Clue, the spoof mystery-murder film with Tim Curry). This, perhaps, is predominantly because of the fact that the end of this narrative isn’t necessarily the end of theirs. Their story is all-at-once constantly continuing and forever broken.

And this most of all hints at the type of play we’re watching. It’s not a chronicling of somebody’s life, and it isn’t a story that goes full-circle. Instead, as the title suggests, it’s an insight into the private lives – as opposed to their public personas – of the marriage and divorced duo, as well as their newly discarded spouses, and the impact each individual’s private thoughts, feelings and actions has on another.

Private Lives shows us four individuals in three (perhaps even four) separate relationships at different points, all at their most vulnerable. Whilst Elyot and Amanda hint at the pressure and burden of public expectation being the cause of their marital breakdown first time around, we’re witness to the admissions, flaws and vices that privacy and intimacy permits.

Everybody is concurrently compatible and yet incompatible, and that’s surely the point as much as anything is. Private Lives is an exploration of the impossibility of life, love and happiness – as depressing as that sounds – but does so in an altogether gleeful, provocative and clever way. It’s not at the same high standards as Merrily We Roll Along (which still lingers in the mind and plays on my iPod), but it’s another fine showing.

There are further showings of Private Lives in the UK and beyond over the next week.
Next up from CinemaLive is Elton John – The Million Dollar Piano which hits cinemas on March 22nd.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott