Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens in Private Lives
Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens in Private Lives

Last autumn's modernist Private Lives in the intimate Minerva Theatre, Chichester, has stormed into the West End proving yet again that Noël Coward's imperishable 1930 comedy thrives best when played to the hilt for real and not too preciously.

Elyot and Amanda, newly re-married to other people, meet by chance on their neighbouring balconies in Deauville, elope naughtily to Paris and start getting on each other's nerves all over again. That's it. But what Coward called the lightest of light comedies is actually a charade of chauvinism, a steely, stylish battle of egotism and sexual attraction.

Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor play it to perfection at the Gielgud and do so, most impressively, in the vivid and immediate present. They are creatures of appalling impulse, driven to extravagant displays of irritation and affection on some primal, rhythmic surge of fear and loathing. It's a jazz age junket of manic self-indulgence.

And of course it's so brilliantly funny you hardly have time to catch your breath as Jonathan Kent's production batters at your twin reactions of delight and disapproval. Stephens' haughty Elyot is a slightly ridiculous poseur in a barathea blazer on his balcony, clearly bored with Anna-Louise Plowman's vacuous, willowy Sybil already, while Chancellor's Amanda, all bony shoulders and beaky bravura, is a jagged and rhapsodic bohemian.

She could have stepped down from her own wall in the grand Paris apartment designed for her by Antony Ward, which is a riot of gold leaf and paintings in the abstract, cubist and colourful style of Juan Gris, Fernand Léger and Picasso; she retaliates to Elyot's elision of the Waldstein sonata and "Some Day I'll Find You" on the piano with a savagely hilarious dance routine to her records of The Rite of Spring.

Here's one thing, though: Toby doesn't play the piano (it's a fuzzy soundtrack) and Anna doesn't sing, both essential prerequisites for their roles, I reckon, just as Gayev in The Cherry Orchard ought to know his way round a snooker table and seldom does. And this one negative paragraph would also suggest that the actors are at least ten years older than they should be (Coward says Elyot is "about 30").

Aside from that, the play skitters on its merry way like an uncoiled stretch of barbed wire. "I'm glad I'm normal," offers Anthony Calf's pleasantly befuddled Victor, like a dim-witted version of James Fox. "What an odd thing to be glad about," replies the temporarily derailed Amanda, pointing up the fact that her relationship with Elyot is an exercise in preening, catty exhibitionism.

The fur really does fly, as well as the furniture, in their copulative wrestling match, the sort of no-holds-barred angry love-making Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner used to go in for, apparently. Such fun, but so exhausting, and they keep it under control with the "pax" word, "Sollocks." "Where are you going?" cries a distraught Sybil; "Canada" says Elyot, almost the funniest riposte in the play.

Calf's Victor is the sort of chap who rolls up his tie when he removes his jacket for a fight, and there you have the ultimate statement in the cautious and the carefree. But even the straight couple quarrels, as the curtain descends on a new chapter in these noisy private lives, leaving Sue Kelvin's roly-poly French maid (more complicatedly verbose in this version) to butter her own brioches and tidy up the debris.