Private Lives, review: Havers and Hodge are perfect, but which coward cut the risqué lines?

Patricia Hodge and NIgel Havers in Private Lives - Tristram Kenton
Patricia Hodge and NIgel Havers in Private Lives - Tristram Kenton

What a beguilingly silly, slyly profound play Private Lives is, a temple to Noel Coward’s genius. It was a glittering hit when it opened at the Phoenix theatre in 1930; the author took the lead as Elyot opposite Gertrude Lawrence’s Amanda; they’re a couple five years divorced and thrown back together by the inspired circumstance of adjacent honeymoon hotel rooms on the French coast. Familiarity with the play hasn’t bred contempt. Despite many revivals, it keeps rising above cosy respectability to assert its modernity.

Of its period, but somehow timeless, as long as there persist men, women, the confusions of chemical attraction and conflicted emotions about being bound together it will remain sharply relevant. Coward understood that we’re required to rub along as individuals, and that the closer we get, the more friction will arise.

Launching an old-fashioned entity called “The Nigel Havers Theatre Company”, this touring revival – annoyingly pausing over Christmas – stars Britain’s best-loved Nigel. Havers is 70. The text describes Elyot as “about 30”.

Does that matter? Given the age-difference between Havers’s man of the world and the archetypal silly filly he has got hitched to – Natalie Walter’s wonderfully squeaky and easily affronted Sibyl – it’s almost dangerous. But Havers is rare among actors in being indestructibly likeable, and suggesting a boyish sheepishness beneath an old wolf’s debonair clothing. He could probably get away with actually murdering Sibyl on the exasperated line – “I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe”, which gets a big, shocked and delighted, laugh.

Unless my ears deceive me, other risqué lines appear to have been lopped out. Back in the day, Private Lives almost didn’t pass the censor; is the red ink now dripping again? It’s one thing to excise a line like “I haven’t any peculiar cravings for Chinamen”; another to snip the immortal “Certain women should be struck regularly like gongs”. Given that the evening rises to a peak of cartoonish physical hysteria – when Elyot and Amanda, jilting their newly-weds, hole up in Paris but start flying at each other, hammer and tongs – such, well, cowardice seems misplaced.

Director Christopher Luscombe presides over an otherwise pitch-perfect account of the play. The first act is an agreeable horror-show, as contrived nuptial happiness collapses at the unwanted – then wanted – reunion. It’s full of neat symmetries, underlined here by identical posturings at respective balconies.

Jilted: Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Natalie Walter - Tristram Kenton
Jilted: Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Natalie Walter - Tristram Kenton

Patricia Hodge is the evening’s winning asset. Her Amanda slides affected ennui into actual boredom as her incompatible hubby Victor (a ramrod Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) tries to assert manly protective qualities. Hodge is a past mistress at the withering look while pressing her lips tight with subtextual irritation. She is, as the character says, “jagged with sophistication”, but a heart beats beneath the froideur and languor. Last but by no means least: a respectful final cheer for Aicha Kossoko as the Parisian maid watching – with subtle disapproval – Brits abroad behaving badly.

The first scene alone achieves what Coward’s biographer Cole Lesley observed on the original first night: “They played [it] so magically, lightly, tenderly, that one was for those fleeting moments brought near to tears by the underlying vulnerability, the evanescence, of their love.”

Tour resumes Jan 17-22, Canterbury; 01227 787787;