Private Lives, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show details
Royal Lyceum Theatre
Martin Duncan (director), Francis O'Connor (set and costume designer), Chris Davey (lighting)
Kirsty Besterman (Amanda), John Hopkins (Elyot), Ben Deery (Victor), Emily Woodward (Sybil), Nicola Roy (Louise)
Running time

Written in just four days in Tokyo, 1929, Noel Coward created the free spirited character of Amanda in Private Lives specifically for his darling friend, Gertrude Lawrence. Casting himself as her equally glamorous, camp, caddish former husband Elyot, the play paints a barely disguised intimate portrait of their real-life, love-hate relationship.

Coward envisaged the entire storyline in his mind’s eye: “Gertie appeared in a white Molyneux dress on a terrace in the South of France and refused to go away until four in the morning by which time Private Lives, title and all had constructed itself.”

The curtain rises on a magnificent set – a towering white-washed art deco building, with L’Amour in neon lights. Just as Coward had imagined, the opening scene is a resort hotel terrace with the open windows of two separate suites. As a backdrop, ingenious film footage of waving palm trees along a beach.

Standing on one balcony is Sybil, a petite, blonde girl, early 20s, looking slightly flushed and nervous. She is on her honeymoon with Elyot, a suave, dapper divorcee, a fact which makes her curious about his “pretty, sleek” ex wife, Amanda. “I don’t want to see her again or have her name mentioned!” retorts Elyot.

Unbeknown to him as he changes for dinner, pretty, sleek Amanda, draped in a silk negligee, steps onto the neighbouring balcony. She is on her honeymoon with Victor. He too feels insecure, questioning her about Elyot, to which she replies, “I forbid you to mention his name again.”

But five minutes later, as you may predict, the divorced couple are shocked to see each other again. From initial fury and embarrassment, the chance encounter soon reignites their fiery, passionate love for each other, with ruthless disregard for their new spouses.

John Hopkins is the epitome of Elyot – poised, posed, polished, precise diction and dashing manner. (Think John Bannerman or Rupert Everett). The tall, slender Kirsty Besterman captures the irresistibly charming, wild and wilful Amanda, a modern Twenties girl with short, Marcel-waved hair, cigarette and cocktail in hand.

And so a classic Bedroom Farce scenario ensues with honeymoons cancelled before celebratory champagne corks can be popped.

Private Lives is both an hilarious social comedy of its time, but equally a timeless romantic drama. But it’s far more than two hours of funny puns and frolics.

In analysing the behaviour and personalities of the two couples, there’s a serious, almost pessimistic view of love and marriage. Coward saw passion as a regrettably disruptive force, perhaps due to his own experience of unrequited gay relationships.

What is quietly yet assuredly emphasised in Martin Duncan’s meticulous direction, is the clear comparison between the four very different men and women.

Amanda is emancipated, sexually liberated, elegant, fashionable and plans to sunbathe on the beach.

Dressed in a flowery cotton frock, Emily Woodward plays Sybil as a bubbly, giggling conventional girl who believes a suntan is not suitable on women. Victor, (smoothly portrayed by Ben Deery) is tweedy, staid and as he admits himself, normal.

Elyot in contrast is a rich, reckless, self-indulgent man of the world. In the first scene, discussing his love for sweet Sybil, he believes, “Love is no use unless it’s wise and kind and undramatic... unflurried by scenes and jealousies”.

But he is not being truthful to himself: he unconsciously desires the bittersweet combat of dramatic love affairs. Amanda and Elyot are magnetically drawn to each other sharing a headstrong, idealistic approach to life.

Their duel of wits is brilliantly staged, from intimate endearments to explosive arguments as they fling bouquets of barbed wire comments at each, snarling like lions trapped in a cage.

With sumptuously designed sets from Deauville hotel to Parisian penthouse, linen suits, panama hats, tuxedos, Molyneux-style couture and impeccable performances, it’s an absolute masterpiece of Cowardly comedy, glamour and pizzazz.

Sparkling, sassy, cool and classy, the laugh-a-minute humour is so intoxicating it hits the spot like an ice-cold Dirty Martini.

Show times

14 February to 8 March, 2.30pm (Wed/Sat only), 7.45pm

Ticket prices

£14 - £27.50