Saturday, October 8, 2011

(No.174) Noel Coward's "Private Lives"

Years ago Pat and I attended a production of a Noel Coward play in London's West End. Coward was and still is one of our favourite playwrights and this production of a Coward play remains memorable for me. The reason is that this particular production came from a director and a cast who were seemingly dedicated to giving it an aggressively gay slant.

Indeed, so much was this the case that as I watched it I could almost hear Coward spinning in his grave. So out of tune was it with what the audience expected of a Coward play that half of its members walked out at the first intermission, not to return. I confess that was also my inclination but Pat would not leave so I stayed.

Noel Coward's plays and his dialogue have a particular style and favour a distinctive delivery of that dialogue. Which brings me to a different Coward play, Private Lives, the comedy of manners Coward wrote and in which he performed with his friend Gertrude Lawrence in London in 1930.

This is the play mounted in London in 2010 by the Theatre Royal Bath Company. It starred Kim Cattrall in the Lawrence role and is now at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto until Oct 30. The production then moves to New York for a Nov.-Feb run. This North American production also stars Canadian Paul Gross in the Coward role opposite Cattrall.

The play's plot can be easily summarized: former spouses (Cattrall and Gross) come to a hotel in Deauville France, each accompanied by her/his new spouse; five years after their divorce they meet by accident and run off together to her Paris apartment leaving their new spouses behind; in Paris the ex-spouses fight as of old; the new spouses catch up with them in Paris and end up fighting with each other; ex-spouses reconcile and sneak away.

This production's English director Richard Eyre appears to have decided to try to make his version of Private Lives distinctive by having the lead characters be less like the sort of actors delivering Coward lines than one would expect in a Coward play -- in other words make it sound less like a Coward version of Private Lives. In this respect I cannot improve on this comment by the most consistently discerning of the major Toronto drama critics, Robert Cushman in the National Post (Sept. 27):

[In the Paris apartment scenes] "The sex is there alright, and the regret, but the wit has mostly gone missing. Coward's lines ... do need charged crispness. Cattrall's delivery is often flustered, and she underrates the adjectives. Gross is effectively hushed rather than conventionally clipped ...."

The English actors who play the new spouses, Anna Madeley and Simon Paisley-Day, are very effective in their supporting roles. Paul Gross' English accent needs some work but his performance as Elyot is on a par with Kim Cattrall's as Amanda. They work well together in their extended scenes although both seem, for my taste, rather more energetic and knockabout in their roles than I think Coward contemplated but clearly it is what director Eyre wants.

Those who are familiar with Kim Cattrall based only on her role on the television series Sex and the City may not appreciate the range of her acting talent, some of which is on display in "Private Lives". I was particularly taken by her performance as Gloria Scabius in a 2010 award-winning British television mini-series based on a 2002 book by the Scottish writer William Boyd, a favourite novelist of mine: Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (Knopf). As for Paul Gross he has demonstrated his theatrical acting skill on stage at Stratford and in worthy endeavours like his impressive effort involving the WWI movie he both directed and acted in: Passchendaele.

I am sometimes amused and always interested by the often differing reviews of plays in Toronto, Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake of the drama critics for the three Toronto daily newspapers: Robert Cushman of the National Post, Kelly Nestruk of the Globe and Mail and Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star (see for example my column No.96 on "Critics duelling over An Ideal Husband", posted June 3, 2010).

Among this trio only Cushman (like the critics for the New York Times) does not provide 'ratings' for plays he reviews based on assigning a number of stars out of four -- and good for him. He also seems to me to be the Toronto critic least inclined to bow in the direction of the trendy. As for his review of Private Lives he does not seem to care much for this production although he does not come right out and dump on it. I say "seem" because, even after rereading his review (National Post, Sept.27), I cannot find anything like an overall verdict on this production.

The Globe and Mail's Kelly Nestruk gave this Private Lives production a modified cheer -- three stars out of four -- although the rating seemed higher than was justified by the language of the review (Globe, Sept 26,2011).

Richard Ouzounian of the Star gave this version of Private Lives a rave review ending with a grade of four stars out of four (Star, Sept.26). This could hardly have surprised anyone who had read his article and interviews about this production of the play just prior to its opening (Star, Sept.24). It was so smarmy that his subsequent review of the play itself seemed like part two of the article.

This Coward play has been revived for both West End and Broadway productions a dozen times since its first appearance in a theatre. Although I would have preferred a more traditional production of Private Lives I enjoyed this one. Pat enjoyed it rather more than I did and admonished me that I should not have approached this production almost as if I had expected Noel Coward himself to appear on stage.

by Alastair Rickard

For information and tickets for Private Lives, go to or call 416-872-1212




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