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Saturday, 26 February 2011

Theatre - Private Lives - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 9/10

Noel Coward was a playwriting genius, and this is probably the best of his brilliant plays.The tale of a chance encounter on honeymoon of two separate but distinctly connected couples still fizzes with sexual chemistry, humour and keenly observed social commentary, especially on the institution of marriage itself.

Elyot and Amanda are acrimoniously divorced, and five years on have both now found new spouses and find themselves hilariously on honeymoon at the same time at the same Deauville hotel as each other. So it’s safe to say that it is not the romantic start to their honeymoons that they were imagining. At least not romantic as far as their new partners are concerned. It quickly transpires that, after their first passionate union, both have settled for a sweeter, nicer, more amiable partner. So when Elyot and Amanda come across each other on the terrace for pre dinner cocktails, the reaction of each one is of horror and of the urgent need to get away from each other. They know all too well what will happen if they don’t.

Imogen Stubbs, the former RSC star, and aka Lady Nunn, as Amanda is simply wonderful. She has a perfect sense of timing and comedy, which is so necessary to get the most out of Coward’s precise and side splitting script. Stubbs has a wonderful stage presence – with her dancing and fighting scenes which are equally wonderful, and it is a credit and a joy that the Royal Exchange manages to attract such high calibre actors to its productions.

And Simon Robson as her ex husband Elyot is definitely a match for her (save a few slight line fluffs – well, it was a preview) and is equally terrifically funny. The couple prove that love, lust and hate are passions that lie dangerously close to each other. We are treated to seduction and fight scenes in equal measure.

Coward’s writing is sublime. But it does need great actors to bring it together so successfully and make it seem seamless as it spins along at a dizzying pace. And these are great actors. The supporting roles of the spouses are also beautifully played by Joanna Page as Elyot’s new wife Sybil, and Clive Hayward as the unfortunate Victor, Amanda’s husband. And the direction by Michael Buffong, who is becoming something of a Royal Exchange regular after his ‘Raisin In The Sun’ last year, is spot on.

This is a very, very funny play. It is as relevant today as when Coward wrote it in 1930. The sleek costumes are beautiful and the set is perfect for this intimate comedy. I would have given it a perfect score but for a few preview night imperfections, but I am sure that these will quickly disappear and it will be a perfectly sublime and unmissable evening’s entertainment.

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