Amanda and Elyot are made for each other. It is obvious from the start of Noël Coward’s comedy about relationships that the divorced pair should never have married their tiresome new spouses.
When each newly married couple ends up, unbeknownst to the other, honeymooning at the same hotel in France, Amanda and Elyot lock eyes over a rose bush and a veritable electric current leaps over the foliage separating the two balconies. Five years apart has done nothing to quell the passion they once had felt for one another.
In Richard Eyre’s production, the two people standing on Rob Howell’s green-shuttered hotel set are Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen, who deftly express the incendiary attraction between the feisty pair which explains both the reason they got married in the first place and the reason they are now divorced.
Proving herself adept at physical comedy – particularly in the scene where Amanda first spies Elyot across the hotel balcony – Cattrall makes Amanda vivacious, spirited, strong and, despite her actions, endearing. Led by the heart, Amanda has tried to take the sensible route in marrying Victor but has only shown that listening to her head, rather than her heart, won’t make her nearly as happy. Equally, Elyot has married the insipid 23-year-old Sybil, which only seems to make him more depressed than he naturally seems to be. Less sympathetic than Amanda though just as funny, Macfadyen’s petulant Elyot shows little warmth towards Sybil and even less conscience. Nevertheless, when he persuades Amanda that they should each abandon their honeymoons and flee together to Paris, you want them to be together.
The result is a scene in which Amanda and Elyot fully indulge their passion for each other, played out in Howell’s wonderfully extravagant Parisian apartment, with its gold sheets, opulent furnishings and designer fish tank. Coward adeptly shows the fine line between love and hate as jealousies and old resentments bubble up between the two, threatening to destroy their resurrected love. It is touching, in fact, how hard they try to quell their bickering. But all is in vain; the second of the three acts ends with a scene of physical comedy which sees the apartment spectacularly trashed and the pair storm off to different rooms like teenage siblings.
Though Amanda and Elyot are the two around whom the play revolves – they wouldn’t have it any other way – Lisa Dillon and Simon Paisley Day hold their own as Sybil and Victor, the spurned spouses who arrive in Paris to salvage something from their marriages. Dillon proves herself not entirely spineless as she stands up to the older, more worldly Amanda, while Paisley Day revels in the boorish, clipped, English gent that he does so well. With his comb-over, moustache and emphasised vowels, the only question is why Amanda married him in the first place.
It may have been written in 1930 but the surprise with Coward’s play is how well it has weathered time, not least because Amanda is a thoroughly modern heroine who stands up for feminine freedoms and clashes with male hypocrisy which, though less blatantly expressed, still exists today. Fundamentally, Coward shows that relations between men and woman haven’t changed much through the years, and he makes a strong case for following your heart not your head. Whatever the consequences, it will be distinctly more entertaining.