Private Lives

Mercury Theatre, Colchester

25th May 2016

To today’s audiences Noél Coward’s “Private Lives” might appear slow to start.  We are used to much quicker mood and scene setting introductions in this digital age of instant gratification.  Yet there is a purpose in this slow start for without it the chaos that follows would have no reference in time.

The play has been analysed by many seeking a deeper meaning whereas it is simply about façade and reality.  The beautifully dressed and mannered couples on their balconies in the south of France sip cocktails and talk of banalities – until the subject of the main characters’ former partners comes up.  Naturally, these former partners are next door to each other and so are sown the seeds of the ensuing farce.

It is not surprising that what follows in the bedroom scenes was almost censored by the Lord Chamberlain in 1930 for being too risqué.  People openly talking about and having… “copulation”, I think was the word Coward used.

And it is in that bedroom that the play comes alive.  Elyot, played by Pete Ashmore transforms from a white dinner jacketed Daniel Craig lookalike to a passionate, lustful creature unhindered by social mores.  Likewise, Amanda, played by Krissi Bohn, loses the prim and proper for raw animal instincts and together they romp under the duvet, on the sofa, on the floor – you get the picture. For this is a play about sex.  About our partners being those we love not those that society dictates should be our partners.

Naturally all of this carnal stuff must be too good to be true.  After all, Elyot and Amanda’s relationship is flawed by the fact that, whilst in love, they can’t actually stand each other.  The second act culminates in a beautifully choreographed fight scene which Ashmore and Bohn seem to have way too much fun playing!  And, I imagine, a nightmare from a directorial point of view as food, feathers and frames flew about the stage!

The supporting roles of Sybil, played by Olivia Onyehara and Victor, played by Robin Kingsland are wonderfully underplayed.  They are shocked to discover the post-fight carnage in Amanda’s flat as the true reality of what goes on behind closed doors dawns.  This realisation is dealt with in a typical British manner as all four sit around a table and sip coffee and talk about the weather.

Throughout there are wonderfully comic pieces.  Amanda choking on the croissant, Elyot coming in and out of the closet, Sybil being dragged across the floor on a rug – all worthy of a Marks brother’s movie.

For me however, it was Louise, the French maid who stole the show.   With all this romping about in bedrooms going on, before you start thinking short black skirts and feather dusters, we are talking here more of Victoria Woods’ Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques.   The tiny part of Louise, played brilliantly by Christine Absalom, is a piece of pure visual comedy.  She brings the audience back to reality, emphasising the absurdity of what is happening on stage as the main characters nibble on croissants.

Funny, lively and thought provoking, Private Lives runs at The Mercury Theatre Colchester until June 4th.

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