Robin Herford’s staging of Coward’s Private Lives sets a very high standard for the planned series of co-productions between the Mercury Theatre, Oldham Coliseum, Harrogate Theatre and Basingstoke’s Anvil Arts. It makes much of the comedy duel between formerly married Amanda and Elyot as they meet again, this time with their new spouses in tow. It also – very cleverly and with considerable delicacy – draws our attention to the dichotomy between mutual passion and personal incompatibility.
This underpins the second act in particular, which is basically a duologue for the two principals. It makes the exchange of physical violence as first Amanda and then Elyot loses temper into something dangerous and not just comic knockabout. Coward’s acerbic wit is seldom simply surface gloss, and this production proves it.
Michael Holt’s excellent sets help; his Art Deco hotel for the first act and a Paris apartment still determinedly Deuxième Empire for all its Jazz Age updating for the second and third work splendidly. The costumes are also very good, with Sibyl’s dress sense (or rather, lack of it) underpinning her character precisely. Lorna Munden’s sound design for the first act is properly evocative.
James Simmons is a very fine Elyot, debonair and insouciant on the surface but suggesting throughout that this carapce hides something altogether more volcanic. Jackie Morrison’s svelte Amanda holds up the mirror image; you can see why she attracts and yet in her own, so very elegant and ultimately selfish way, repels. Maeve Larkin as Sibyl and Christopher Naylor as Victor do very well with what are ultimately unsympathetic foils to the main characters. This production leaves us laughing. It also suggests that happy endings are not around the corner for anybody.