BWW Review: PRIVATE LIVES at the Stratford Festival Offers a Fun Night Out for Audiences
PRIVATE LIVES is one of Noël Coward's greatest works. It is timeless in its humour and with the right cast, it is a delightfully hilarious exploration of all sides of love and passion. The cast assembled in the Stratford Festival's production does justice to Coward's clever use of words and wit, all but guaranteeing the audience a fun night out at the theatre.
As I took my seat at Thursday night's performance, I overheard more than one audience member speaking fondly of the two previous productions of PRIVATE LIVES that had been mounted by the Festival. Both had starred Brian Bedford, first with the incomparable Maggie Smith, and then with Stratford favourite Seana McKenna. What was refreshing was that although folks seemed to enjoy reminiscing about past productions, they, for the most part, seemed more interested in seeing this beloved play again than they did in comparing performances.
As the play begins, we find two newly married couples: Elyot and Sibyl and Amanda and Victor, on their honeymoons. It turns out that Elyot and Amanada had previously been married to each other, and although neither couple is aware of the other's presence, the exes come up in conversation almost immediately, as the new spouses try to get a better idea of who came before them. Eventually, the exes see each other on adjoining balconies and start to question why they ever parted to begin with. Hilarity ensues as the audience is repeatedly treated to the answer to that question.
Director Carey Perloff has compiled a fine cast. Lucy Peacock and Geraint Wyn Davies as ex spouses Amanda and Elyot are a divine pairing. From the moment Amanda knows to hand Elyot the fruit from her cocktail, it is clear that these two share something far more intimate with each other than they do with their new spouses. Their chemistry is excellent and they are equally as fun to watch when they are getting along as they are when they are sparring. The moment when the two discover they are on neighbouring balconies is is hilariously memorable, and their playful banter, romantic singing at the piano, and passionate arguments make them a fascinating pair to watch.
Sophia Walker amusingly portrays Sybil's insecurities about her relationship with Elyot and Mike Shara is great as the reasonable, yet somewhat boring and cowardly Victor. Rounding out the cast is Sarah Dodd who is wildly entertaining as Amanda's maid, Louise. Dodd previously played Sybil in the 2001 production and so her presence allows for a fun link between the two. Dodd's facial expressions and physical comedy bring an welcome new energy to the second half of the play at a time where it is at risk of starting to drag on.
I must also speak to the impressive set design by Ken MacDonald. The sleek white backdrops to the honeymoon suite are cleverly shifted and turned to become Amanda's Paris flat later on in the play. The set suddenly looks drastically different, but at the core it is the same, much like Elyot and Amanda's tumultuous relationship.
Perhaps what makes the comedy in this play feel so timeless and universal is that it explores a question that romcoms and TV dramas still find themselves exploring today: Is it better to have a passion-filled, yet at times turbulent relationship, or the safe, wise and calm kind of love that Elyot and Amanda are trying to make work with their new spouses as the play begins? It is clear that Coward has a preference for the former as he explores whether there can even be love without the kind of passion that eventually leads to a record being smashed over someone's head. Perhaps a more serious play would try to find a healthier, happier balance...but this isn't that play...And thank goodness, because where's the fun in that!?
PRIVATE LIVES continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 26th.
Photo Credit: David Hou