First Night: Mirth-free and misconceived

Private Lives Lyttleton Theatre London

NOEL COWARD'S Private Lives came joint seventh in the National Theatre's poll of the top 100 plays of the century. Not bad going for a piece characterised by its author as "the lightest of light comedies".

Coward, though, knew that his play - which kicks off from the simple proposition of smart-set Thirties divorcees accidentally meeting on adjacent hotel balconies on the first night of their honeymoons with new spouses - also contains "a certain amount of sound sex psychology".

Amanda and Elyot can't live together nor apart and their violent spats would these days have them both tottering towards refuges for the battered. Recent criticism has made the play sound like Strindberg with snappier gags. But productions, like the one by Mike Alfreds, have shown that it is possible to do justice both to the simmering violence and the frivolous surface that banks it down.

Private Lives is the most revived of Coward's numerous plays. Mystifying, then that the National should choose to mount this work in a Lyttelton production by Philip Frank that makes the play's high ranking in that list look frankly perverse. Most of the elements in this largely mirth- free staging are misconceived, from the casting downwards. Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser are two highly intelligent actors, but an aptitude for communicating the surface flippancy of the central couple is not amongst their gifts. Stevenson has about as much talent for projecting a willed, heedless gaiety as, say, George Eliot.

In her portrayal, there's insufficient obstruction between the irresponsible, flighty Amanda and the suppressed feminist.

The first night audience roared with laughter at what looked like massively unspontaneous slapstick violence in the second act, while I was wondering what had happened to the real cast.

You always know a production is in trouble when its resorts to stunts like having toy trains speed across the stage. Here, at the close of the first act, while Victor and Sybil (Rebecca Saire) stiffly drink their cocktails, a sports car races up the proscenium arch with the absconding central couple as cargo. It certainly inspired in me equivalent fantasies of escape.

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