With Present Laughter about to open at London’s Old Vic, here’s an opportunity to see one of the Noel Coward’s sparkling gems from the previous decade.
According to the programme notes for this production, Coward wrote Private Lives in four days during a bout of flu in Shanghai in 1930. I’m glad to report that the only coughing and spluttering at the Mill at Sonning is likely to be with laughter.
The story begins with two mismatched couples – Elyot and Sibyl Chase and Victor and Amanda Prynne – on their respective honeymoons in the same French hotel.
The big problem is that Elyot (Darrell Brockis) and Amanda (Eva Jane Willis) were previously married to each other and fate has put them in adjacent rooms.
Once the divorced pair set eyes on each other they realise they are still in love and instantly abandon their new partners to escape to Amanda’s flat in Paris (great set design by Michael Holt).
Willis is outstanding as the headstrong and glamorous Amanda. The sexual chemistry between her and Brockis’s caddish Elyot is spot on.
Coward’s insightful lines about marital politics and promiscuity seem timeless, but it does seem strange to hear the ex-partners reminiscing about the first time they hit each other.
Amanda and Elyot’s love-hate relationship is nicely handled in Act Two culminating in an expertly choreographed fight involving a gramophone record, a bunch of flowers and assorted cushions from the chaise longue.
There’s strong support too from the rejected spouses: Lydea Perkins as the “insipid” Sybil and Tom Berkeley as the straight-laced Victor.
Director Tam Williams makes inspired use of the musical talents of Celia Cruwys-Finnigan to create a suitably Gallic atmosphere with a selection of accordion songs that include cleverly reworked versions of Toxic and Tainted Love.
Noel Coward would surely have approved.
Private Lives is at The Mill at Sonning, Oxfordshire, until 3 August