Set to the tinkling of a jazz pianist, creating a 1930s atmosphere, Private Lives is a farcical comedy of manners. Two couples honeymoon in the south of France, revelling in the beauty of the moon and the sound of the sea beneath their terrace. In the apartment on the left is Sybil – the young, pretty and naive bride – and her newly acquired husband Elyot, dashing and funny, if not slightly too brazen for Sybil’s tastes. On the right is the confident, bolshie and hard to please Amanda, with her groom Victor, who is well meaning, but dull. Sybil and Victor are both struggling to settle into married life in the knowledge that their spouses have already tried it once before to disastrous effect. In an amusing twist of fate, their struggle is made all the more difficult when they realise their spouses’ exes are not nearly as far as away as one would hope.
When Amanda and Elyot are reunited unexpectedly, their fiery relationship is ignited once again and they are left with the decision to join their pleasant, but passionless partners for dinner, or take the far more tempestuous road they have travelled before.
Coward’s comedy, first performed in 1930, feels ahead of its time. In fact, some aspects, like Amanda’s wicked sense of humour and open enjoyment of sex, along with her and Elyot’s blatant and cruel disregard for their legal spouses and their open, competitive banter with one another, were originally considered shocking, with Lord Chamberlain demanding censorship of the more risqué scenes. Today however, Private Lives is charming escapism, with terms of endearment like ‘dear heart’, ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’ peppered so frequently into the dialogue it sugars any distaste you might feel towards the ultimately selfish and violently passionate pair.
Katrina Lindsay’s design allows the audience to feel like voyeurs to the two couples’ fate, and gives a cinematic, widescreen feel to the stage. The first act’s set is the fortuitous terrace, which has an art deco feel and sheer curtains in order that the audience can peek behind closed doors and watch the drama unfold within. The second act is set within Amanda’s Parisian apartment, which looks like a deliciously cosy doll’s house, filled with pillows and candles and numerous subtle bohemian touches. At each end is a small room where the characters can hide from one another, only visible to the audience.
Private Lives is a classic, charming comedy, which allows serious undertones to reveal themselves and endear the otherwise annoyingly self-centred characters to the audience. Loneliness, the fear of growing old and the never-learnt lesson that history repeats itself resonates throughout Hampstead’s elegant production.