This week, the Churchill in Bromley plays host to a shiny new production of Noël Coward’s most successful comedy, Private Lives, starring Tom Chambers and Laura Rogers. A terribly English comedy of manners, the play follows the tempestuous relationship of Elyot and Amanda, as they fight, laugh, drink, dance and fall repeatedly in and out of love. The problem? They’re both married to other people.
Following their divorce five years earlier, both Elyot and Amanda have remarried, and on the first night of their honeymoons find themselves – in a startling coincidence – staying in neighbouring hotel rooms in France. It doesn’t take long for old passions to resurface… but can they make their dysfunctional relationship work this time, and where does that leave their jilted partners?
Though it starts out very genteel, with a dashing hero and an elegant, witty heroine, the comedy grows increasingly riotous as the couple reveal their darker sides, and begin to veer wildly between love and hate. Though the suggestion that a successful relationship probably needs a bit of violence sits a bit awkwardly with a modern audience, the fight scene is nonetheless a wonderfully chaotic – and at the same time carefully choreographed – comedy moment, as Elyot and Amanda tear apart their elegant living room while their estranged partners look on in horror.
So the play itself is all (relatively) harmless fun, but is director Tom Attenborough’s production any good? Reviving such a popular classic is a risky business, but I’ll leave it to those who’ve seen other versions to judge their relative merits – though it seems fair to say no couple will ever be able to match the play’s very first stars: Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence, for whom the part was written, and with whom he reportedly exchanged a series of bickering telegrams before she finally agreed to be involved.
That said, Tom Chambers and Laura Rogers are a great pairing in every way – their romance is as believable as their mutual loathing, the witty banter and physical comedy are spot-on, and there’s even an opportunity for them to show off their skills as musical performers (and for Tom Chambers to remind us why he won Strictly). In addition, each captures the complexity of their character; he’s smooth and charming, but childish with a nasty temper, while she’s beautiful and clever, but selfish and occasionally cruel. And it’s this that makes them so much fun to watch, because you literally never know what they’re going to do next, or whether they’ll end up kissing or killing each other. Their abandoned partners are played by the equally impressive Charlotte Ritchie and Richard Teverson, who manage to be quite incredibly annoying (and dull) considering we’re meant to be feeling sorry for them.
Private Lives is a classy new production that oozes charm and sophistication, even in its wilder moments. From Lucy Osborne’s set, which takes us from a sunny hotel terrace to Amanda’s glamorous apartment in Paris, to Ed Parry’s ‘pretty ravishing’ costumes, every detail combines to paint a picture of young, beautiful people living a life of selfish decadence – and yet Amanda and Elyot’s relationship drama is one that could happen to anyone. And while it’s impossible to decide if we love or loathe them, there’s certainly plenty of fun to be enjoyed while we figure it out.
Private Lives is at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley until 23rd January.