Noel Coward and the Hampstead Theatre go back a long way – to 1962, when its first artistic director James Roose-Evans directed a production of Private Lives that put Coward back where he belonged in the spotlight and gave Hampstead its first West End transfer.
So Lucy Bailey’s deliciously edgy production is a fitting choice to start the theatre’s fiftieth birthday year. Bailey has boldly commissioned composer Errollyn Wallen to underscore the play with evocative music at once contemporary while recalling the jazz age, though happily Coward’s sublime “Some Day I’ll Find You” remains as Amanda and Elyot’s theme song – and a tribute to the potency of “cheap music” (Amanda’s words)!
This mixture of evoking the 1930s and finding contemporary resonances is true to Bailey’s production. There’s a vigour and energy about the performances and not just when divorcées Elyot and Amanda are sparring with each other or their brand new marriage partners Sybil and Victor. Jasper Britton’s sexy Elyot in particular is as vital and physical in his expression of inner pain and isolation as in delivering killer one-liners.
Bailey’s cast miss few tricks in delivering Coward’s satire on the mores and stereotypes of the time when men were men and women were ‘little’. It’s the fun of the obvious mismatch between the two new couples that sets this up. Rufus Wright’s upstanding Victor, exuding dependability and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s girlish Sybil, intent on melting appropriately into Elyot’s arms, play their stereotypical foils to the comic hilt, while still keeping just the right side of believable and sympathetic.
Claire Price’s Amanda manages to look as healthily radiant as Betjeman’s tennis-playing Joan Hunter Dunn, out to get a ‘sunburn’ (not tan!) on her Riviera honeymoon to Victor’s horror, while still projecting all the glamour of a Ginger Rogers in her elegant evening gown. Sometimes she’s a tad too hearty and loses some of the precision and poetry, but rather that than a vapid Amanda.
That gown looks luminously gorgeous under Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and perfectly complements the art deco balcony and drapes of designer Katrina Lindsay’s swanky Riviera Hotel, recalling the sets of Astaire and Rogers’ musicals (surely their drapes would be just those shades of glowing pink and primrose in colour).
Lindsay provides an authentically bohemian Act Two Paris loft apartment, allowing the audience to eavesdrop on ‘private lives’ as Elyot and Amanda revisit their romance – and the rows that are part of it. When Victor and Sybil track them down, Bailey’s production makes clear how elegantly Coward engineers his four characters into every permutation of the pas de deux to complete the symmetry he begins in Act One.