Sumptuous production values and splendid direction distinguish this classic offering, its quality boding well for the MTC new year.
Combustively volatile but passionately inseparable lovers Elyot and Amanda have each remarried and are honeymooning side by side in a ritzy French hotel. Tracy Grant Lord’s ingenious revolving set complements the symmetry in Noel Coward’s early scenes with two perfectly matching hotel suites. In an overture of sorts, the rooms rotate as the couples arrive, with director Sam Strong sneakily throwing in a very early glimpse of the pining lovers on either side of an interior wall, each with no idea that their true love is so close.
Strong has achieved a solid unity of style amongst his actors, each perfecting the plummy, throwaway delivery. Tone is kept light and breezy in all but the bitterest fights. The chase scene in act one, as Elyot and Amanda fly the coop, is an absolute highlight, making brilliant use of the set and revolve.
Lord further enhances the text with signature colours for the women: fiery red for Amanda and pleasant green for Sybil. Both women have particularly stunning gowns when they change for dinner in the early happy moments of act one.
Such is the solid construction of the hotel, all darkly decadent with gilded trimmings, the new set for act two comes almost as a surprise. The first set would have been more than sufficient for a regular play, but Elyot and Amanda have run off to her apartment in Paris, so a whole new aspect of the design is required. Hopefully the props are made of strong materials, such is the beating they take as the lovers’ bickering and bruising battles reach their crescendo.
Further flair comes from the engagement of eminent musical director Mathew Frank, who adds significantly to the enjoyment of the show with a score of present day hits re-fashioned into 1930s standards. The audience reacted to each new piece of music with absolute delight.
Unencumbered by the star casting that drives West End and Broadway revivals of the piece, Strong and MTC have been free to cast actors that best suit the roles. Although the marketing makes it appear that Lucy Durack is the lead opposite Leon Ford, it is actually Nadine Garner who plays Amanda to Ford’s Elyot (this may be the only production of Private Lives in the world to feature Elyot and Sibyl on the poster)
Although physically fit to the point of not really having the feminine curves of the period, Garner gives an excellent performance, landing plentiful laughs and generating crackling electricity with Ford. Tall and tousle-haired, Ford may not have the full star magnetism for the role, but expertly captures the suave, unflustered style of the caddish Elyot.
In her straight play debut, music theatre sweetheart Durack acquits herself immaculately, speaking with a delightful tone and portraying Sibyl’s sympathetic, feminine grace with ease. John Leary keeps the buffoonery nicely in check as the lamentable Victor Prynne.
In an astounding cameo, Julie Forsythe creates uproarious physical comedy in only a few moments on stage as cantankerous maid Louise. Crossing the stage at the top of act two, Forsythe establishes her entire characterisation with one bitterly resentful cough. The physical comedy as Louise enters the apartment in the dark is hilarious, and the later piece of business with the suitcase is a hoot.
There is no doubt that the play is dated compared with today’s pacy entertainment, but for a theatrical treat this production is very hard to beat.
Private Lives plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until 8 March 2014.
Photos: Jeff Busby