Voted joint seventh in the National Theatre's poll of the top 100 plays of the century, Private Lives kicks off from the sublimely simple premise of two smart-set Thirties divorcees accidentally meeting on adjacent hotel balconies on the first night of their honeymoon with new spouses. Selfish and headstrong in similar ways, they can live neither together nor apart and their violent spats would have them both tottering, these days, to refuges for the battered. Recent criticism has tended to make the play sound like Strindberg with snappier repartee. But productions like Mike Alfreds' have demonstrated that it's possible to do justice both to the surface slightness and the simmering violence beneath.
It was presumably with some such end in mind that Franks cast Stevenson and Lesser, highly intelligent actors capable of more than hinting at the emotional complexities in this couple's love-hate relationship. It's the top layer of the characters, though, that looks to me embarrassingly out of their range. Stevenson has about as much natural aptitude for projecting glamorous irresponsibility and willed aplomb as, say, George Eliot. When, in the second act, she suddenly launches into a defiant stamping parody of The Rite of Spring, it's neither funny nor surprising because you reckon it was always only a matter of time before she did so.
The first-night audience roared with laughter at the slapstick violence (involving phallic statuettes, slammed piano lids, and soda siphons) between Amanda and Lesser's pint-sized Elyot who, at points, resembles not so much Coward as Popeye the Sailor Man. But it all came across to this spectator as desperately unspontaneous and under-sexed. Amanda and Elyot should dangle the prospect of dangerous fun, while there's no danger of real fun, you surmise, with this pair. It's like watching your parents letting their hair down.
Private Lives is the most frequently revived of Coward's plays. So you might have thought that the National, with its capacity for taking subsidised risks, would champion the cause of one of the lesser-known works. As it is, Franks's staging pulls off the considerable trick of making the play's high ranking in the top 100 list look decidedly perverse. You can always tell that a production is in trouble when it has to resort to such cheap, crowd-pleasing stunts as sending a miniature train speeding across the stage. Here, at the close of the first act, as the unwittingly abandoned Victor and Sybil (Dominic Rowan and Rebecca Saire) stiffly sip cocktails on the hotel terrace, a dinky remote-control sports car races round the proscenium arch. This device certainly inspired in me equivalent fantasies of escape.
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