First Night: Private Lives, Vaudeville Theatre, London

Cattrall a delight in classic Coward
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Their ages are like palindromes (she's 53; he's 35). She was brought up in Canada; he was reared in Blighty. Their professional backgrounds are not exactly congruent. She's broadly from film and TV (most notably Sex and the City); before Spooks and Pride and Prejudice, he had served an apprenticeship in classical theatre. But Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen display an onstage chemistry that works like a volatile charm in Richard Eyre's exhilaratingly funny revival of the Noel Coward comedy classic, Private Lives.

It’s been said of the great dance partnership between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he gave her class and she gave him sex. What, though, of Amanda and Elyot, the divorcees who, unable to live either together or apart, meet – after five years – on adjoining hotel balconies in Deauville while on honeymoon with their stuffy second spouses and abscond to Paris? This pair are arguably such exotic birds of a feather that it would make more sense to say that, rather than any attribute, he’d be liable to give her a black eye and she to give him a near-coronary (and vice versa). The couple have a lot of previous convictions to be taken into consideration and producers often like to cast actors with “previous” – whether marital (like Maggie Smith/Robert Stephens and Liz Taylor/Richard Burton) or professional (like Alan Rickman/Lesley Duncan).

One of the delights of this revival is seeing how well Cattrall and Macfadyen are able to dispense with the need to come from similar stabling (so to speak) and how pointedly Eyre brings out the fact that Elyot and Amanda are not a coded gay couple in semi-drag but Coward’s waspishly perceptive take on a passionately heterosexual relationship. In the long shot of theatre, you’d swear that the two actors are of the same vintage, right from the moment when Cattrall first appears on the hotel balcony clad only in a snowy white beach towel. With her tossed blonde curls and barbed flightiness, she’s a delight. True, you’re sometimes aware of her strain in maintaining a posh 1930s English accent (it can feel like watching someone trying to flounce down a high-wire) but she’s got very good comic timing and demonstrates a winning flair for emotional slapstick, whether having to battle through the floaty hotel curtains à la Eric Morecambe to hide from Elyot or launching herself, in a fit of frustration and as if from a cannonball, so that she lands prone onto the central divan in the Paris apartment.

Escaping entirely from the highly strung, slightly queeny stock portrayal of Elyot, Macfadyen is all the funnier for being so meatily masculine and solid a presence, with an accent that seems to mock its own port-wine plumminess in a manner that reminded me, at times, of Michael Gambon. Playing the bitchy off the butch gives a lovely unfussed, goading aplomb to the character’s drop-dead put-downs.

It helps that Rob Howell’s set for the Paris apartment is as hilarious as it is handsome. Everything is circular, as though to insinuate that this relationship is on a loop, and the Matisse-like trio of glued-together goldfish bowls spring a farcical leak when Amanda goes on the rampage, wielding her hooked window-opening pole as a deadly weapon. In the role of the conventional second spouses, Lisa Dillon as Sibyl marvellously progresses from fretful, insecure pest to a woman veering between vestigial decorum and paroxysms of a new septic self-assertion. Simon Paisley Day’s Victor behaves as though he emerged from the womb ramrod-backed and with an officious pipe soldered to his lower lip. Eyre’s splendid production alerts you anew to the fact that Private Lives is a dazzling feat of airborne comic dramaturgy.