As the audience files in, jazz bubbles over the stage. Two chairs, facing away from one another, and the backdrop of dark curtains immediately suggests confusion. The multiple cocktail glasses casually placed around the set hint at the extravagant lifestyles of the English elite that the play goes on to mock. We are placed into an upper class 1930s, and are prepared for the frivolous tone of Private Lives.
Noël Coward’s renowned play follows the story of divorced couple Elyot and Amanda, whose love is volatile, passionate and at times psychologically unstable. Their newly wed partners however, are pallid at best. Meeting by chance on the first night of their respective honeymoons, the estranged couple become infatuated with one another all over again almost immediately. While Coward’s notorious wit shines through in the play, often believable sentiment is sacrificed for surreal humour. Eccentric characters and bizarre exchanges are entertaining but fail to develop realistic personas, making all characters unlikable. Towards the end, the themes of the play become increasingly repetitive, and even teeter on the edge of being tedious.
However, the phenomenal cast redeems some of the weaknesses in the plot. Will Bishop and Eleanor Mack, playing Elyot and his new wife Sybil, are particularly good at using a twitch of an eyebrow, or a fallen facial expression, to have the whole audience laughing. The physical humour of the play matches its verbal wit; Elyot and Amanda (Bethan Davidson) have some spectacularly well-choreographed fight scenes and strangely moving if not slightly unhinged dance routines. Amanda’s new husband Victor (Tom Chamberlain) brings some respite from the chaos. His constant kicked-puppy expression plays in brilliant contrast to the arrogant whirlwind of the divorced lovers.
Coward’s play misses the mark of being satirical and wanders more into the region of being outright surreal. Tinged with the upper class arrogance typical of this style and era of theatre, this performance is more than saved by the brilliant work of those involved. Indeed, on the whole GADS revives the renowned play Private Lives with a confidence and charm that smooths over some of the perhaps outdated elements of the script.