One of the most well-loved of Noël Coward, Private Lives actually came into being thanks to a nudge from Gertrude Lawrence; the pair had been lifelong friends and he had apparently made a promise to write a play for them both to star in. It was swiftly written whilst on his travels in Asia, and eventually premièred in 1930 at King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, making its West End debut at the Phoenix following a successful nationwide tour. For Coward, it seems, the real challenge came in performing rather than writing it – the second act is particularly tough on the actors playing Amanda and Elyot. If you’ve recently seen Present Laughter at the Old Vic and are in the mood for more Coward comedy, then your thirst can be quenched by Tam Williams’ production of Private Lives over at The Mill at Sonning.
Divorced Elyot and Amanda have both found new partners, and are at the beginning of their honeymoons (with Sibyl and Victor, respectively) – however, both couples have chosen Deauville as their destination. More specifically, the same hotel and with neighbouring rooms! Initially they manage to avoid each other by chance and, though both Victor and Sybil seem a bit preoccupied with their predecessors, the honeymooners all seem contented. This all goes to pot once Amanda and Elyot have an unavoidable encounter, leading to both of them trying to convince their new partners to make a moonlight flit to Paris. But, left alone, sparks begin to fly between the formerly married couple, and they start to wonder if they should just run off together instead…
The interwar years are notorious for figures such as flappers and the Bright Young Things: a generation trying to ease the pain of the Great War’s losses, and having fun while the world remained at peace. Even so, the population at large hadn’t necessarily caught up with the changing attitudes towards sex and love. This is possibly what makes works such as Private Lives feel so modern – whilst you obviously wouldn’t use Amanda and Elyot as role models, we are perhaps in a better position to recognise and understand their behaviour rather than immediately label it a scandal. It’s also ridiculously funny, with a wealth of wit and great potential for physical comedy at various moments.
The quite intimate surroundings of the theatre at The Mill at Sonning make for a great fit for this play, as the audience is invited into the events of these “private lives”; wherever you’re sat it’s like being a fly on the wall. You’re immediately transported over to France when you enter the auditorium, as Celia Cruwys-Finnigan performs a few anti-romantic songs (also playing the accordion) – her character, Louise, is only onstage for a very short amount of time overall, so as well as setting the tone this is a nice move for her to showcase her talents. Michael Holt’s set screams Art Deco elegance, and is surprisingly roomy once the action moves to Paris.
The four other members of the company are unfailingly energetic (I was watching on the hottest day of the year, with no working air-conditioning in the auditorium – so even more praiseworthy) and really capture the essence of Coward’s words in their performances. Lydea Perkins and Tom Berkeley may have slightly less to do as Sibyl and Victor, but they still make a lasting impression – and really come into their own right at the end. Darrell Brockis and Eva Jane Willis pull out all the stops as far as Alison de Burgh’s fight direction is concerned, at one point almost spilling out into the audience, and fire off each other as warring lovers Elyot and Amanda; you really get the sense that they have a troubled history.
If all that wasn’t enough, The Mill at Sonning also provides a delightful pre-show two-course meal and show programme with every ticket, so you really do feel like your visit is a proper treat. (Top tip: have the yuzu posset for dessert!)
My verdict? An energetic production of a classic comedy, filled with Art Deco elegance – the cast of five are very impressive.