Private Lives – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Clare Jenkins, February 2022
“Strange how potent cheap music is” is one of the best-known lines from Noel Coward’s classic 1930 comedy-of-(often bad)-manners about a divorced couple finding themselves in adjoining hotel bedrooms while on honeymoon with their new spouses.
Ninety years later, the first strains of ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’ provoked an audible murmur of pleasure among the Sheffield Lyceum’s matinee audience. It was second only to the sighing ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that had greeted Nigel Havers minutes earlier as he emerged onto the balcony of the candy-coloured hotel as the newly re-married Elyot.
Coward’s crisply witty script describes Elyot as “about 30, quite slim and pleasant-looking”. Havers himself is 40 years older than that, but carries it off smoothly in his charming, silver foxish way – helped by a bit of script-tweaking. “I’m much older than you,” he tells his new bride (Natalie Walter). While it’s easy to see why she is attracted to him, it’s rather more puzzling to understand what he sees in this high-pitched Sybil, whose flapperish acting style seems to owe more to the silent movies.
Similarly, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart is curiously amorphous as Victor, newly married to Amanda (Patricia Hodge). Is he playing a toy boy lover (given the disparity in age between the pair), an American gangster (when he threatens to hit Elyot), a cartoon character, or a “cottonwool Englishman”, as the script has it?
Coward himself took the lead in the original production, alongside Gertrude Lawrence. And recordings of their performance are still sublimely funny, with the clipped vowels – “Are you heppy?” – the polished pace and the underlying passion, masked by the stiffest of upper lips.
Superb old theatrical hands as Havers and Hodge are, there is little here in the way of passion or sexual chemistry. Indeed, there was laughter when their first kiss became over-extended. As Amanda herself says at one point, “there are certain moments when our chemical what d’you call ‘ems, don’t fuse properly”. Or, to misquote Morecambe and Wise, they’re playing all the right notes, but not necessarily with the right ardour.
The script describes Amanda as “quite exquisite, with a gay face and a perfect figure”. With Patricia Hodge, that gayness of face can easily twist into the sad side of the theatrical ‘comedy and tragedy masks’, all downturned eyes and eyebrows. Foregoing sex appeal, she plays up the brittleness, ever quick with the quip, but a stranger to the swoon.
The second act takes place in her Parisian apartment – Simon HIglett’s sumptuously boudoir-style set, with its crimson walls, bohemian loucheness and Art Deco touches. It’s here that the couple, having run away from their new partners, have re-consummated their relationship. They talk of “living in sin”, but it’s hard to imagine. More plausibly, as they start making love on the sofa, she complains of a twisted neck and he winces in pain as his knees creak.
Director Christopher Luscombe’s production – the first from the sweetly named Nigel Havers Theatre Company – as a whole seems more Terry and June sit com than Coward-esque camp. On one level, it’s undemanding, comfort theatre, with old-style elegance, gloss, evocative music and some great lines (“I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe” isn’t one of them). At another, it presents complicated, uncomfortable truths about love, lust and relationships – is there ever a happy ever after, or just a happy-up-to-cocktail-time?
‘Private Lives’ runs at the Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday.