It’s a delicious thing, to watch two grown adults tearing each other apart. Especially if they’re a heterosexual couple. Only if it’s not actually happening. Until it gets violent…

Credit: Marc Brenner

Michael Longhurst’s revival of Noël Coward’s taut, flippant, and viciously dark divorce play effectively realises the threat and aggression inherent in the core relationship, carefully unpacking their descent into passion with all its desperate consequences. It’s a cautionary tale with a lot to say about marriage, gender politics, and toxic love — and glimmers of its potential for great drama frequently shine through. However, beneath the clipped RP and witty back-and-forths, there’s a lack of heat and drive in the setup, and much of the comedy’s tension gets lost to a slightly laboured pace, over-tidy blocking, and shallow emotional subtext.

Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling are brilliantly matched and hit all the choreographic beats with character and grace. Their counterparts work well to introduce the dynamic of the fatefully co-honeymooning couples as they meet on the balcony — an enduring image of 20th century theatre. But as the story progresses, it’s hard to shake a feeling that there is so much more to be mined here. The ‘false marriages’ that fall down as the unstoppable leads, Elyot and Amanda are disastrously reunited, lack the distraction, faltering hope, and ennui that could set alight this image of middle-aged adults trying to do the right thing, and it’s all a bit prim.

Credit: Marc Brenner

As Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant, down-the-line staging gives way by a clever trick to the main-stage set, things get slightly looser. Amanda and Elyot are exposed in guilty embrace, at each other’s throats with delightful ferocity, but the dancing is still quite awkward. It isn’t until the latter half that the play truly gets into its stride, with the jilted parties, Sibyl (Laura Carmichael) and Victor (Sargon Yelda) arriving for a reckoning. Some beats here are electric: the unbearably tense stillness of Amanda pouring the coffee; the bickering of the two women over their respective standing; Mangan’s rapid switching between the simpering victim, arbiter of good humour and physically imposing tyrant. Throughout he demonstrates his remarkable flexibility and the unhinged, manipulative, and dirty tactics of the cad, all played through the sleazy brilliance of his smile. Stirling too does a wonderful job of capturing the longing for freedom and abandon felt by Amanda as she dances between her hedonistic drives with the social decorum and poise expected of a woman in her station.

Credit: Marc Brenner

These characters have been aged up around ten years, with the play’s debut seeing Coward and Gertrude Lawrence take the starring roles at 30 and 32 respectively. Sibyl was originally written as 23, and it’s likely that Amanda’s husband, Victor, is also older in this production — a choice that, whilst perhaps sacrificing the vivacity of a younger cast, doesn’t upend it too much. Another novel touch is the use of a live strings duet — Faoileann Cunningham’s violin and Harry Napier’s cello — that strain against each other mournfully and inject the action with a tonal sense of discord and malaise.

Credit: Marc Brenner

Ultimately, it feels like a faithful, honest interpretation that takes us back to the 1930s and our ongoing obsession with stories of the madness of ‘love’. Perhaps there are restrictions with the estate that prevent a more original revival, though regardless of this, there is still something about the production that, for all its mannerly affect and technical suave, feels somehow stuck in the past.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Private Lives is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until the 27th of May 2023; find tickets and more info here.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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