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Michael Coveney: Toby Stephens re-visits his parents' last stand in Private Lives

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Private Lives was the last play Toby Stephens' parents, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, appeared in together 40 years ago, just along the block, in the Queen's Theatre, where he opens tonight at the Gielgud in that same riotous comedy of a gloriously disastrous marriage.

The ironies and echoes are never-ending, as John Gielgud himself directed Smith and Stephens, and the central tenet of the play - that these two people love each other too much to live together; or depend on a sort of masochistic antagonism to underpin their carnal and intellectual attraction - defines exactly what was going on with Toby's mum and dad.

Amanda Prynne, the character now played by Anna Chancellor, sums it up perfectly: "I think very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there's no knowing what one mightn't do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle."

That bottle went pop when the reviews appeared in 1973. Jack Tinker, who had just joined the Daily Mail, accused Gielgud of allowing Maggie her head, or worse, her hands, while Harold Hobson, approaching the end of a 30-year stint on the Sunday Times, averred that she had become a compendium of grimaces, an anthology of little squeaks, a catalogue of double-takes.

She looked amazing, though, in her Marcel-waved wig, flared pencil skirt and floral red pyjamas. And Robert, unsurprisingly, mined the bleak interior of the play - people are always surprised by how Strindbergian it is, and how poignant - in his last ditch effort to defy the inevitable, and mortality: "Come and kiss me darling, before your body rots, and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets."

Toby, of course, never saw this performance (though his director, Jonathan Kent, did), as he was about four years old, but it's the reason why he and his elder brother, the actor Chris Larkin, left England for Canada for a few years, where Maggie re-launched her stage career with Robin Phillips at Stratford, Ontario (while making Hollywood movies in the winter months), and settled down with her second husband, the late Beverley Cross, who was a screenwriter responsible for Death on the Nile and Clash of the Titans.

Anna-Louise Plowman and Toby Stephens in Private Lives
Toby isn't married to Anna Chancellor, thank God, but to Anna-Louise Plowman, who plays Sybil Chase, his on-stage second wife, in Private Lives; they've been married for over ten years (Anna-Louise is a strikingly beautiful six-foot New Zealander, best known for appearing in Holby City on TV), have three children (Eli, Tallulah and Kura) and have made Maggie a very happy granny, so it's all worked out fine in the end.

I love the fact that Toby never talks much about his parents and that Anna Chancellor has never seen Private Lives (actually, she's never seen Hamlet, either, which is even odder), so I expect nothing but new vigour and new insights at the Gielgud, despite the possibility of being overshadowed by the too recent lively cat-fight between Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen in Richard Eyre's terrific revival at the Vaudeville in 2010.

Before that, you have to go back to the 2001 Howard Davies revival (at the Albery, now the Noel Coward) starring Alan Rickman - magnificently disdainful in black silk pyjamas - and Lindsay Duncan, a wittily churlish ice-queen, to find the real heartbeat of this 1930 modern masterpiece, which languished for years in the sub-Cowardian prissy slap and tickle comedy department.

Three years chaotically married, and five years happily divorced, that's Amanda and Elyot, and their "time" together is almost exactly the same as that spent by Maggie and Robert in their marriage, with approximately the same period of separation within it. Things had come to a head and exploded in this play, which explains why her performance, according to various reliable reports, including those of Gielgud himself, veered around all over the place during the run.

After the opening, Noel Coward went backstage and wagged his finger at her, telling her off for overdoing it: "You've got very common indeed. You're almost as common as Gertie." Maggie told Alan Bennett that to be compared to Gertrude Lawrence - who had originated the role opposite Coward in 1930 at the brand new art deco Phoenix Theatre - if only for overdoing it, seemed such a compliment that she immediately mended her ways; though she always retained the astounding and hilarious triple-take on Elyot when they first meet on the balcony.

By the time she took the production to New York, without Robert - following a tour to Chicago, Boston, Denver and Toronto - she was applauded by the critics as the best Amanda in Broadway memory, eclipsing not only Gertie but also Tallulah Bankhead and Tammy Grimes (whom I saw in the role; good, but a mere shadow of Maggie's vivacity and brilliance). Robert re-built his career, but never really recovered, and how beautifully Elyot Chase, now played by his own son, romanticises his yearning:

"You're looking very lovely, you know, in this damned moonlight... You don't hold any mystery for me, darling, do you mind? There isn't a particle of you that I don't know, remember and want." Amazingly, and probably for the best, Toby and Anna Chancellor had never even met before rehearsals in Chichester last year.

See also: Podcast: Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor talk Private Lives with WhatsOnStage