Private Lives at the National - Lyttelton

Love and hate, public and private, normal and abnormal. Fine lines run between each of them and, in Noel Coward s Private Lives, those lines are blurred, crossed and redrawn repeatedly.

Amanda and Elyot shared a passionate, though frequently destructive, love. Five years after their brief marriage broke down in a hail of blows and tears and petty jealousies, they remarry younger and far more ‘normal spouses. “Love is no use unless it s wise and kind and undramatic,” Elyot tells his pretty bride Sibyl on the first night of their honeymoon in a posh hotel in the south of France. That, he promises, is the kind of love he wants. But then his sophisticated ex, also honeymooning, steps out onto the adjacent terrace. A few minutes alone is all it takes to rekindle the old can t-live-with-her, can t-live-without-him flame, and next thing you know the couple are abandoning their newly acquired other halves and escaping to Amanda s holiday flat in Paris.

Private Lives is Coward s most famous play so the National hasn t exactly gone out on a limb in selecting it as its contribution to the playwright s centenary celebrations. A more audacious decision is director Philip Franks to place in the high comedy two extremely serious actors - Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser. Unfortunately, the result of this casting against type is rather more mixed than inspired.

The play requires the two actors to act like people who are constantly acting, their flippancy and sophistication expertly masking real emotions. Stevenson just about pulls this off, employing a series of pouts, arm flourishes and mock-coquettish chin dips. She also has a tidy technique of staring straight out into the audience, giving full view as naughty thoughts and reactions flicker visibly across her face. Her moment of silent shock on the terrace as recognition of Elyot first registers is a mini tour de force.

Lesser is less successful, allowing his character s mask to slip too often. What is revealed is a man who is much more nasty than nice and whose nastiness, frankly, is not compensated for. Lesser is just too short, too old and too mousey to carry off the suave sophistication necessary.

The best scene in this production is undoubtedly in the third act when Sibyl (Rebecca Saire) and Amanda s Victor (Dominic Rowan) track the errant partners down to their hideaway. As Amanda and Elyot, recovering from a bruising battle, cunningly play their spouses off against one another, the sensible Victor and Sibyl gradually lose their well-guarded senses, with perfect comic timing. No casting mishaps there.

Full marks too to Stephen Brimson Lewis set. His art-packed Paris flat, with magnificent views of Sacre Coeur, is to die for. You can see Coward himself lounging happily there with ease.

Terri Paddock

Private Lives opened at the National on 13 May 1999. It also visits Bath's Theatre Royal (7-17 July), Newcastle's Theatre Royal (14-18 September), Edinburgh's King's Theatre (21-25 September) and Belfast's Grand Opera (28 September - 2 October).