THEATRE Private Lives, Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

At last, a Noel Coward production that does its author proud. David Benedict toasts the Mike Alfreds Cocktail - a perfect mix of wit, passion and heartbreak

Drape yourself winningly across the furniture, face front and speak frightfully fast in a very, very brittle voice. Good clothes and good teeth (diction, darling) are all that's needed for Noel Coward. It's like Play School. The entire evening should be seen through the arched window. No. As this magnificent production proves, there's a great deal more to it than that.

In a comedy as good as Private Lives, you expect to laugh, and one of the immediate strengths on display is that you do, which on the basis of all recent Coward is a ridiculously rare experience. The great surprise and delight of Method and Madness's revival is the depth of passion on display.

You search in vain for a high concept. Director Mike Alfreds wisely sticks to the play's original period and milieu, knowing perfectly well that everything about the behaviour of these people is rooted in the 1930s smart set. When elegant divorcees Elyot and Amanda accidentally meet on adjacent hotel balconies on the first night of their honeymoons to new partners, they are, after all, engaged in the ritual of dressing for dinner and the serious business of sipping cocktails.

Yet dangerous emotions shimmer beneath this beautifully sustained surface. Alfreds keeps the stakes extremely high. From the second the two ex-lovers meet, they pull rank on each other, determined to disguise the passions threatening to engulf them. This builds to such a pitch that when the impossibly tall, soigne Simon Robson doubles up in agony over the balustrade declaring "Darling, I love you so ... I've never loved anyone else for an instant", the effect is shockingly moving. What's more, this full-blown passion is kindled by violence. Robson and Abigail Thaw's marvellously assured Amanda may drip the ease, confidence and languor produced by wealth, but sexual tension smoulders and erupts between them. At the top of Act 2, when the suggestion arises that maybe they should go out, everything about the way they sprawl across the seemingly endless sofa, tells you that they have spent three days doing nothing but have rampant sex in every conceivable part of Paul Dart's riotously designed, lush Paris apartment.

Geraldine Alexander's maddeningly sweet Sibyl and Martin Marquez's stuffed- shirt Victor are pitched at the same dramatic level. Their violence is produced through repression. The resultant collisions are highly charged, to say the least.

The recent Design for Living patronised its audience by doing all their work for them, smugly pointing out the "shocking news" that, beneath all this "dated" wit, there was real drama. The cast were so busy playing "meaningful" subtext, the text disappeared. Alfreds's company manage truth and text with wit and grace. Not even this powerful production can quite sustain the energy through the slightly tepid final act, but who cares? Not only do they dazzle and dare, they make it look blissfully easy.

In rep with 'Jude the Obsure' and 'Flesh and Blood' to 27 July. Booking: 0181-741 2311

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