I have seen two excellent versions of Private Lives; one which transferred to Broadway starring the wonderful Alan Rickman and Lyndsay Duncan and the other by the Library Theatre Company here in Manchester which was also sublime. I was looking forward to seeing Michael Buffong's new production staged in the round at the Royal Exchange Theatre and I was not disappointed.
Most Noël Coward fans know the plot but for newcomers, two sets of honeymooners - Elyot (Simon Robson and Sybyl (Gavin & Stacey's Joanna Page) and Victor (Clive Hayward) and Amanda (Imogen Stubbs) are completely unaware that their chosen idyllic French Terrace is about to open some old wounds, as they are staying in the same place. The disruption to the narrative is that Elyot and Amanda are exes and their relationship was fiery to say the least.
Cue farcical situations, cover ups and plenty of knockabout comedy, mixed with Coward's recognisably cutting and amusing dialogue.Stubbs' Amanda is too breathy in Act One and it's a relief to see the actress relax into the role by Act Two and Three as she displays a real knack for physical comedy. Her chemistry with Robson is slightly stilted to begin with but it moves along nicely as the piece progresses. But there is a lack of poignancy between the couple that I have seen in other productions.
Robson himself is tremendously funny and spits out Coward's cutting lines as if he were drinking sour milk. The play is worth seeing for him, alone. Hayward also does well as the cuckholded husband, desperate to be as independent as Elyot.
Page is a scream as Sybyl, with her clipped accent and whiny voice. At times, you do hear her true Welsh accent slipping through but she rises to the unforgiving challenge of the round with aplomb and has great comic timing. Ellen Cairns' versatile set - rich in design and texture is stunning and provides the perfect backdrop for this battle of the sexes.
At times, you want this Private Lives to be more moving as there are moments in the original text, where you are left saddened by the characters' vile behaviour as you realise, there is so much love here. But, overall Buffong does a grand job of staging a classic play and bringing speed to the comedy, where required.