Some actors do it with a kiss, some others with a sword, but Alan Rickman can win an audience’s attention with the sheer warmth of his stage presence. He bounces onto Tim Hatley’s spectacular three-tiered set for Private Lives with an unnerving dash and vigour. No wonder the two leading ladies are locked in combat for his favours.

Noel Coward’s comic drama may have bitten with a darker snap in its heyday, but its parables of loss, regret and disloyalty still seethe at the fringes, especially under Howard Davies' able direction. And yet it all starts out with such a wave of jollity. Elyot (Rickman) and Sibyl (Emma Fielding) survey their honeymoon Riviera with the relaxed air of wealthy patrons, but the sense of ‘before’ looms large almost immediately.

‘Before’ was Elyot’s marriage to Amanda (Lindsay Duncan), which was clearly a more sparky affair than his current union. Elyot refers to Sibyl only as ‘steady and sweet, cosy and unflurried’. You can almost hear the bells of bore-doom ringing from his mouth.

We’re not surprised, therefore, when Amanda and her new partner, Victor (Adam Godley), emerge from the shadows of the adjoining suite. So far, so Coward. But the potential for a comic set-up takes a more dashing turn, when the ex-couple quickly reignite their passions and scamper off to Paris without a by-your-leave. Whether we feel sympathy for Sibyl and Victor at this stage is a moot point. Coward has rushed us through the opening exchanges so frantically, that we reach the interval as much in need of cocktails as the quartet of lovers.

Actually, you’d have thought that folks might get to know each other a trifle better before tying themselves in marital knots. But that’s not Coward’s way, and with a cast so profoundly at ease with the author’s material, it seems churlish to demand plausibility. Duncan displays a tigerish sexuality that positively purrs across the boards, whilst Rickman looks fantastic and clearly feels it. Elsewhere, Fielding (almost unrecognisable with period curls and frock) and Godley play their toffish parts to a treat, and deservedly steal the closing scenes.

The second half reveals a plush, lush setting, with slopes and velvet drapes amassed. Without revealing the contents of two striking acts, it’s fair to say that romance burns bitterly at both ends although Coward’s piercing script remains high on laughs throughout. It’s a gorgeous, treat of an evening, and one that smites all the deeper for being performed in these days of such unbending trauma.

Gareth Thompson