If reality TV taught us anything, it’s that there’s little easier to lampoon than the lives of the rich and famous; long before and through the television age, Noel Coward recognized and exploited this wonderfully. His wildly eccentric charm along with his inimitable talent and style made him the darling of the aristocracy whose attention landed him “up to [his] arse in nobles”. His outsider class background and insight into human nature gave him a deeper understanding of the upper classes’ flaws and foibles than they could ever have (or be forced to have) themselves. As interwar Britain put itself back together its scions of privilege wanted a Coward to flatter and skewer them. For as much as he was a man of his time – a career that spanned several generations – Coward (or perhaps the character of Noel Coward) seems at once out of place and perfectly at home.
For many writers, Private Lives would be one of their more memorable and defining works. For the impressively prolific Coward, who dashed off the play in just four days while taken sick thousands of miles from home, it’s just one in a series of works that exposed the contradictions and pretensions of a certain kind of life: the need for ironic detachment while staying effortlessly engaged, a lacking in nothing that becomes a lack of purpose and self-awareness, a view of the world as a playground where nothing can be taken seriously (even as they saunter into the corridors of power). It’s a kind of compliment that you can only obliquely refer to Coward’s ineffable campness obliquely. Any attempt to pin it down misses something vital; in his time, he predictably enjoyed watching reviewers try and fail.
There’s something quintessentially British about Coward’s character(s) but audiences at Stratford and elsewhere can enjoy these unravelling absurdities regardless; if there’s one thing the Brits are good at, it’s putting on a show. This one features preening buffoon Elyot and whirling dervish Amanda, who have both found new love since their acrimonious divorce and happen to be honeymooning in the same resort. After desperately and comically trying to avoid an awkward reunion, they are forced to confront each other – and the passion that still exists between them, loathe as they are to admit it. Meanwhile, their abandoned spouses – neurotic Sibyl and stuffed shirt Victor – realize they have more in common than just their situation.
For this farce to work rather than fall flat, the leads must nail the comedic delivery while sustaining a necessary personal chemistry. Geraint Wynn Davies and Lucy Peacock comfortably clear that bar. Davies’ Elyot commands the stage, bloviating his way into our hearts; Peacock’s Amanda is a complex tour de force. Crucially, this pairing is far more than the sum of its parts. Their dynamic is captivating and convincing – we can see why Elyot and Amanda are inevitably drawn back together even as they infuriate each other. When the play lulls a little, as it does in the second half, it’s when the focus shifts to Sibyl and Victor. This owes more to the parts than the cast – Sophia Walker’s Sibyl stands her ground well while Mike Shara’s Victor is the right blend of stiff and bepuzzled – but neither can raise the roles above the “lightly wooden ninepins” envisaged by Coward.
All this nonsense takes place against an enchanting backdrop. Ken MacDonald’s set is a vibrant mix of pastel colour that brings out the surreal and whimsical tone of the piece. Curved structures divide the two halves of the stage – and the two couples – with a neat symmetry and rotate into a picture of domestic bluster for the second half of the play. The furniture and props in Amanda’s Paris flat have the synthetic feel of a display, highlighting her need – shared with everyone there – to keep up appearances. The costume design by Christina Poddubiuk is a delightful approximation of 1930s camp – a look I hope is back in fashion while I can still attempt it.
It’s easy to imagine an Elyot or Amanda’s charm wearing thin quickly when you aren’t in love with them (despite yourself). Luckily, Coward drags us into their company for just long enough to split our sides before sending us on our way.