If ITV companies still have the economic freedom to screen productions of major theatrical works, I suspect that their Private Lives would be similar to Braham Murray's Royal Exchange version: impeccably dressed (Johanna Bryant's design even includes a few topiaried shrubs) but a little too eager to be entertaining. Noël Coward's work frequently demands both a crispness and deceptive sincerity, at least within the context of the play in question. This is never more apparent than in his "greatest hit" (in the reductive Nessun' Dorma sense of the term). Elyot and Amanda's bickering and spitting, even their physical battles, may be no more than games, but games are often far from trivial – just ask Nigel Short.
Pip Donaghy's Elyot is deficient in both these respects. Donaghy conveys a real sense of violent immaturity, but too often his violence is that of the shotgun rather than the rapier. His first exchange with Amanda, on discovering that they occupy adjacent honeymoon suites, is agreeably brittle to the point of crystalline fatigue; elsewhere, he often simply roars. Elyot does not breeze in a dinner jacket, he blusters. At one point in the second act's fight scene (exuberantly choreographed by Malcolm Ranson), a piano lid is slammed on his fingers; unforgivably, Donaghy audibly growls, "Shit!" As Amanda, Sian Thomas is liquidly elegant and a mistress of the surgically applied feline claw. She is palpably both captivating and infuriating, and works well with Donaghy in the second act's passages of luxuriant and playful togetherness. When tempers fray, however, there is simply no sense that Elyot is evenly matched with her; it is like watching a fight between an Alsatian and a jaguar.
This imbalance is also true of the supporting players. Lucy Scott as Elyot's new bride Sibyl skilfully deploys a moue of upperclass roundedness, as if her favourite pony had just fallen ill; Colin Prockter as Amanda's latest catch, Victor Prynne, resembles more the bumbling, amiable but humourless proprietor of several undistinguished shops.
Donaghy's repeated insertion of grace notes into his performance seriously hobbles an otherwise polished production. As the evening nevertheless demonstrates on many occasions, Coward is perfectly capable of being amusing without assistance.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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