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First Night: Private Lives

Published July 4, 2013

Following the Olivier Award-winning success of Sweeney Todd, Jonathan Kent lends his special touch to yet another classic revival, which – less musical but featuring a duo just as destructive – follows in the footsteps of his 2011 production by transferring from Chichester to the West End.

Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens take on the iconic roles of Amanda and Elyot, the divorced couple at the centre of Noël Coward’s revered comedy who unwittingly find themselves honeymooning in adjacent hotel suites in the south of France.

Stephens pairs the perfect amount of nonchalance and exasperation as Elyot, a man not altogether overwhelmed at the prospect of spending the marital holiday – let alone the rest of his life – with new wife Sibyl, while Chancellor is powerful in both stature and spirit as Amanda, undoubtedly the dominating party in her relationship with Victor.

It therefore isn’t surprising that their new marriages are short-lived, but as the central duo, after morphing into crazed lunatics at the realisation they’re sharing a hotel, elope to Paris together, it is equally unsurprising that they divorced in the first place.

As characters, they’re a match made in hell, but their pairing as actors could seldom be better, as they capture with wit and emotion the euphoric heights and darkest dregs of Amanda and Elyot’s volatile relationship, catapulting ornaments at each other and seeking refuge in cushions as their personalities clash in a sizzling cesspit of their own self-importance.

Anthony Calf and Anna-Louise Plowman complement the explosive duo as their needy other halves. While Calf’s Victor provides an absolute contrast to Stephens’ charismatic Elyot, appearing devoid of charm as he tries to rationalise his barbaric situation with no avail, Plowman’s besotted Sibyl whines and pines for her somewhat brief marriage in a manner that garners little sympathy from any of the on stage parties, or indeed the audience.

It is, instead, the furniture you have to feel sorry for, as both couples hurl themselves across Anthony Ward’s exquisitely designed set. From curved balconies with ornate metal detail to a Parisian living room with gilded walls, the designs evoke an image of elegance that provides a vivid comparison to the raucous disorder unfolding around it.

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