The more mannered a comedy script is, the greater the commitment demanded of actors to their respective roles. This is most obvious in farce in general, and in the work of individual playwrights with distinctive voices: Wilde, for instance, Joe Orton, and Noël Coward. Private Lives has always been an audience favourite, with its cut-glass bickering and frivolous haut-monde amorality; it grants little freedom, though, for performers to stretch into their parts without undermining the poise of the play as a whole. Mike Alfreds's production (the second in Method & Madness's three-show repertory season at the Lyric Hammersmith) elicits laughs in all the old familiar places, and succeeds also in modulating into a minor key for the reflective passages of the second act, but is nevertheless subtly out of kilter.
The most obviously discordant notes are struck by Simon Robson as Elyot. Much of Elyot's character is affectation, but paradoxically sincere affectation. Robson for the most part wears Elyot's mannerisms as casually as the gaudy dressing-gown he sports in Act Two. His flippancy is not so much defensive as adolescent; not to put too fine a point on it, he camps persistently. As Amanda, the ex-wife with whom Elyot is unexpectedly reunited, Abigail Thaw makes periodic forays down the same path, but reins herself in before matters get out of hand. During the role-playing exchanges in the Parisian apartment to which the couple have fled from their separate honeymoons, Thaw's Amanda may lapse into an exaggerated drawl, but is clearly indulging herself for a few moments only; Robson's Elyot never stops.
Geraldine Alexander, as Elyot's deserted second wife Sibyl, makes a pleasing if shallow little blonde mouse, building to a strangled crescendo in the play's final exchange; strangulation is the keynote of Martin Marquez's performance as Victor, leading one to speculate on the severity of the character's toilet training as a child. In general, the quartet of players seem on the young side for their roles – the incongruity is not obtrusive, but the shades of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence hang heavy over Elyot and Amanda. Alfreds also tinkers with the script at several points, but nowhere as perversely as the very final moment: having Elyot and Amanda discovered in an embrace rather than letting Sibyl and Victor find that they have silently fled is all very well in terms of resisting a formal closure, but it most decidedly ain't Coward.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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