BWW Review: PRIVATE LIVES, The Mill at Sonning Theatre
Did you know that songs by Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse sound great when performed in a French accent and with an accordion? I certainly didn't, and so imagine my surprise when I walked into the theatre at the Mill at Sonning to find Celia Cruwys-Finnigan doing just that. To say it was an unexpected introduction to a production of Noël Coward's Private Lives would be an understatement.
Elyot (Darrell Brockis) has arrived at a hotel in France with Sibyl (Lydea Perkins) to celebrate their honeymoon, as have Victor (Tom Berkeley) and Amanda (Eva Jane Willis). The couples are placed in neighbouring rooms, which is terribly unfortunate considering Elyot and Amanda were once married. Now, seeing each other across a terrace after five years apart, the two face the temptation to reignite their relationship.
Though first performed in 1930, Private Lives can still feel fun and sexy. Coward's world of the upper classes feels remote from us today, but, as the recent production of Present Laughter at the Old Vic demonstrates, there's something hilarious to be found in the apparent ease with which these characters enter in and out of passionate relationships.
With "You Know I'm No Good" and "Toxic" performed alongside classics such as "La Vie En Rose", there's easily the potential here to move away from the self-importance of Coward's characters. If only director Tam Williams had leaned more into this vision of an alternative Riviera, as this production of the theatre classic is really quite tame.
There is little of Coward's farcical tone and the actors present four characters who all feel very similar. Only in the final act when they are gathered over coffee and brioche to exchange acidic insults against one another does the energy of the work pick up.
Before that, however, we must watch Amanda and Elyot trade insults and fight (verbally, emotionally and physically) without any real venom or spite. Willis offers an intoxicating Amanda, but when she is just with Brockis's overly English Elyot there's little force to their arguments. Rendered one-dimensionally, these characters can tip over into vapid and unattractive.
Despite the small space, Michael Holt's set is simple yet effective, and the scene change between Acts One and Two, where the setting moves from the hotel terrace to Amanda's flat, is slick and impressive. Set in an old water mill alongside the Thames, the location of this theatre is picturesque and easily worth a visit alone. A meal is also included in the price of your ticket; the restaurant is pleasant and the food is delicious.
Though she's on for only a brief period, it is actually Cruwys-Finnigan who is the most enjoyable part of the production: her musical interludes create a heady, dreamlike quality to the setting that feels delicate and intimate, whilst her reappearance in Act Three as the French maid means she becomes a bizarre guide figure through Coward's maze of relationships, lies and romantic delusions.
Overall, the production needs more joie de vivre. We might not like any of the characters, but amidst the betrayal and anger experienced, there's a suggestion of the clandestine joy that can be found in living to the moment. Amy Winehouse sang "I cheated myself, like I knew I would" - these characters are troubled and no good, but that's no reason for them to be tedious.
Private Lives is at the Mill at Sonning until 3 August
Photo credit: Andreas Lambis