Private Lives review

Private Lives review

Private Lives review

Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge take to the stage in this classic Coward. Jenny Booth reviews


Nigel Havers made a safe choice when he picked Noel Coward’s well-loved and often revived high society comedy Private Lives as the first production for his new theatre company. Despite a few lines that jar on modern ears, Private Lives’s flamboyant characters, wit and near-farcical situations still work, 91 years after a 30-year-old Coward dashed the play off while recovering from flu in Shanghai. In these Covid-afflicted times Private Lives is pleasantly escapist entertainment, with its naughty tale of a divorced couple meeting and falling passionately for each other all over again while on their honeymoons with their insecure and drearily conventional new spouses.

The starry casting of Havers himself and Patricia Hodge as the warring couple provides a powerful box office draw; and justifiably so, as they deliver a Coward masterclass. If you are going to revive Coward, this is the way to do it – with style and lightness of touch. Hodge is particularly brilliant as the poised but passionate socialite Amanda, whose swift changes of mood have her one minute dancing adoringly with Havers’s Elyot, the next minute breaking the gramophone record over his head in a fury. Coward makes Amanda’s character (written for Gertrude Lawrence) at least a match for Elyot, and their tempestuous relationship is a battle of equals.  

Havers brings his trademark suave fluency to the part of Elyot with great success, though the more melodramatic, petulant and self-pitying sides of the character eluded him. It is both obvious and irrelevant that both actors are double the age of the characters Coward wrote; several times they make a joke of it, Hodge pointing up the line where she rolls out of a clinch on the sofa complaining she has a “crick in my neck”. As the abandoned spouses, Horrible Histories’s Natalie Walter injects energy and even some pathos into Elyot’s annoying new wife Sibyl, while Dugald Bruce-Lockhart huffs and puffs as a suitably windy Victor.

The show looks and sounds superb. The pink and white perfection of designer Simon Higlett’s Act 1 set signals from the start that these second marriages are mere fantasy, while Amanda’s flat in Paris – the setting for Acts 2 and 3 – is a sophisticated tigress’s lair from the jazz age. Christopher Luscombe’s well-paced direction brings out the artfulness of Coward’s writing as Elyot and Amanda make out, fall out and make up, again and again, in a dance that seems set to continue forever.

Image: Patricia Hodge as Amanda and Nigel Havers as Elyot in Private Lives. By Tristram Kenton

READ MORE: Patricia Hodge chats to us about the role, her life in Barnes and her incredible career.