Private Lives, Minerva Theatre, Chichester


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The Independent Culture

This year's Chichester season ends on a high with Jonathan Kent's wonderfully fresh, stylish and razor-sharp account of Noel Coward's finest comedy. It's the best Private Lives we have seen since Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan struck sparks off each other in the West End a decade ago.

Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor possess, as a stage duo, just about everything you need to play Elyot and Amanda, the divorcees who, five years after their split, meet on adjacent hotel balconies while on honeymoon with their new spouses. 

Their sexual chemistry has a violent volatility that suggests that this is a union simultaneously hatched in heaven and in hell. The irresistible attraction rekindled in the famous balcony scene is both achingly romantic and deliciously funny here, with Toby Stephens's drawling public-schoolboy-ish Elyot strangely affecting as he succumbs to its power well in advance of Chancellor's taller, headstrong, thoroughbred Amanda, the epitome of “jagged sophistication”, who continues to fight it with brittle bravado.

Gender stereotypes are being drolly undermined so it's no wonder that Stephens lets out a long, involuntary groan of disgust when Anna Louise-Plowman's clingy, squalling Sibyl, his new bride, scuttles on in a queasily girlish pink outfit. Chancellor likewise wastes little time disguising her impatience with stuffy Victor, who, in Anthony Calf's spot-on portrayal, is all tweedy decency floundering out of its depth in a world of spoilt, incoherent egotists.  

On the lips of Kent's central couple, the staccato, mannered music of Coward's decoy-like dialogue is eloquent with the troubled things that are being left unsaid. The balance between artifice and emotional realism in a comedy that sometimes feels reminiscent of Strindberg and prophetic of Edward Albee in its focused depiction of a driven love-hate relationship is beautifully achieved here thanks to the intimacy of the Minerva studio and the thrust stage that brings the escalating spats in the Parisian love-nest in the second act right down into the audience's laps. 

That long, plot-less switchback in exquisitely well-paced here. As they veer between post-coital languor and apartment-smashing aggression, Stephens and Chancellor brilliantly demonstrate that, far from constituting an interruption, these fights are the continuation of intense intimacy by other means – a form of foreplay. 

Flouncing around in their dressing gowns and communicating in mocking parodies whenever possible, they make you feel both a pang of envy and of gratitude that this glamorously self-dramatising, solipsistic realm is exclusive to them.

To October 27; 01234 781312