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Michael Coveney: Toby Stephens keeps Coward in the family

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The news that Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are to appear in Noel Coward's Private Lives at the Gielgud gives a great boost to sentimental theatreland.

Following the example of his father, Robert Stephens who, forty years ago, appeared in the same play in the same role of Elyot Chase with his then spouse, Maggie Smith, a few yards along the Avenue at the Queen's Theatre, Toby will also be playing opposite his wife.

Not so much opposite as alongside, perhaps, as his wife, Anna-Louise Plowman, a very tall and willowy Canadian, and the mother of his children, is playing Sibyl Prynne; who is of course Elyot's new nit-picking wife ("Don't quibble, Sybil!") while Anna Chancellor steams around as his first wife, and true love, Amanda Prynne.

Toby is reported as saying that mum popped along to Chichester to see Jonathan Kent's production last summer and was mildly approving, which means that it must have been absolutely terrific.

For while Maggie's Amanda was in many ways a definitive performance, it also signalled the break-up of her marriage to Stephens and, prompted partly by some acidly unfavourable reviews by Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail and Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times, her departure to Canada for a few seasons at the Stratford Ontario theatre under the direction of Robin Phillips.

Private Lives itself is a play about two people who love each other deeply but don't like each other very much, "two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle." By the time the production went to Broadway, Robert was replaced by John Standing, divorce papers had been filed and Gielgud had worked hard at ironing out the mannerisms that had irritated the critics.

One day in rehearsal, Gielgud dropped one of his celebrated bricks when he interrupted a scene to give Maggie a note: "Oh, don't do it like that, Maggie, don't screw your face up. You look like that terrible old woman you played in that dreadful film...Oh no, I didn't mean Travels With My Aunt."  

Toby went on that American tour with his elder brother, Christopher, the two of them aged five and seven respectively. Neither of them can recall the transformation in Maggie's performance, but the designer, Anthony Powell, could, when he caught the show in Los Angeles before it headed into New York:

"She threw away everything she had done in the past and played it as though it were Ibsen or Strindberg, pushing everything as far as she could. She tested it for all that poignancy of two people who cannot either live with, or without, each other, and it was unbelievable...I'd never seen anything like it in my life."

And in Toronto, Gielgud now thought her acting was "absolutely perfect." In Coward's play, Amanda and Elyot have been married for three years and divorced for five. Maggie and Robert had been married for the same total of eight years, with an almost identical period of separation in the marriage. Let's hope that there's no more life imitating art at the Gielgud, and that Toby gets along happily with both of the Annas he's married to.

Private Lives played in Chichester's smaller theatre, the Minerva, last year, as did Henry Goodman in Jonathan Church's equally acclaimed production of Brecht's Arturo Ui. Rumours that Arturo would come into the West End would appear to be unfounded, as Goodman has just been announced as another Arturo, Arthur Winslow, in Lindsay Posner's March production of The Winslow Boy at the Old Vic.

The rest of the Old Vic casting is yet to be announced, but the star role is not the boy's father, but the personality barrister Sir Robert Morton. Maybe Goodman had enough of show-stealing monstrosity with Arturo, or maybe he just wants to play characters with the same Christian name.

The Old Vic, incidentally, is co-producing Private Lives, further evidence of shifting alliances in the power games of the West End. I wonder if Jonathan Kent is being lined up to succeed Kevin Spacey as the Vic's artistic director when he departs in two years' time?

PS Since posting this blog I'm told that Old Vic Productions, who are co-producing Private Lives, are nothing to do with the Old Vic Theatre. So who the hell are they, then, Kevin Spacey's party chums? And if Spacey's not involved in Private Lives, he should jolly well get them to change their name, because the public won't know, or care about, the difference. 

PPS And now I realise that Old Vic Productions is run by Old Vic owner Sally Greene and their portfolio includes not only the new Private Lives but the old Billy Elliot. Still, it all remains very confusing.  


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