The opening scene features honeymooners Sybil (Isla Carter) and Elyot (James Wallace) attempting to enjoy themselves, in Deauville. Cut to the next scene and another pair of newlyweds; Amanda (Phillipa Peak) and Victor (Philip Rham), who share the balcony. What is the connection between these characters? Amanda and Elyot used to be married; cue a battle of wits, anger and passion, as their new partners, act as open mouthed, bystanders.
Far from being an old war horse, this excellent play still has the power to send an audience into fits of laughter. Instead of being reliant on slapstick comedy, Private Lives’ main ace up its sleeve is Coward's cutting wit which is siphoned through his main characters. Peak's Amanda is perfectly poised, like an adder waiting to bite, yet seconds later wanting to be stroked. This wonderful actress relishes each and every line and her comic timing is something to behold.
Likewise, Wallace makes a perfect sparring partner both verbally and physically. The chemistry between them is spot on; making them likeable, appealing, and very real. Renny Krupinski's furious fight scenes add pace and these actors rise to the challenges he sets them, with ease.
Carter and Rham play the neglected partners beautifully; caught in the crossfire in the path of true love. She exudes innocence and devotion and his undying love for Amanda is evident via his cowering body language. This being a Coward play, each actor is given a gift of a role, however small, and Margot Courtemanche's understated performance as Louise; the French housekeeper, is also delightfully dotty.
Chris Honer’s dynamic direction means that everything is underplayed rather than over the top, allowing these characters to go beyond cliché, bringing out the joy of Coward’s writing but also the sadness, which is so often ignored. One poignant scene features Amanda singing the couple’s favourite song, tears forming in her eyes, and it is quite magical.
Dawn Allsopp’s superb semi circular set provides a great platform, for this famous couple, literally, fighting to get back together. As a season opener, this unmissable production has raised the bar, as you will not see anything else as exhilarating or entertaining in Manchester at the moment.
- Glenn Meads