PRIVATE LIVES
 
Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 28 September, 2012
****

The younger Toby Stephens, whilst always a consummate technician as an actor, did not always invite us into his character. In recent years, though, his portrayals have found a warmth that is organic rather than studied. It may seem strange to be praising his naturalness in a role as mannered as Elyot Chase, the male protagonist of NoŽl Coward’s 1930 comedy. However, Stephens repeatedly strikes precisely the right notes. He is serious without being earnest, in order to keep Elyot’s responses credible as he finds himself honeymooning in the hotel room next to his similarly occupied ex-wife; he is playful without being trivial, as Elyot and Amanda rediscover an engaging ease with each other even amidst the flaming rows as they run off from their respective new spouses to live in sin together. When unable quite to knuckle down to the two minutes’ silence the pair have agreed to observe whenever conflict looms, Stephens’ Elyot compromises by bellowing into a cushion.
    
Amanda Prynne, formerly Chase, is one of the roles which Anna Chancellor was born to play. (I would love to see her Cleopatra, undiplomatic as it may be to say this within days of Kim Cattrall ending her run in the role a few yards away in Chichester’s main house.) Chancellor’s kohl-rimmed eyes can sparkle, smoulder and shoot fire all within the space of a few seconds, as Amanda rides the rollercoaster of her relationship with Elyot which, unlike Norfolk, is not at all flat. These two may well be the best Elyot and Amanda I have seen.
    
Director Jonathan Kent shows some appealing cheek by casting as Elyot’s deserted second bride Toby Stephens’ own wife Anna-Louise Plowman; her Sibyl is a willowy whimperer with just enough of a demanding undercurrent to make her final row with Victor Prynne all too believable. Anthony Calf’s Victor is physically a more stolid, undistinguished version of Stephens’ Elyot, as if Amanda were unable to relinquish the idea of Elyot-ness altogether but instead chose a vastly attenuated model. Designer Anthony Ward has dressed an impressive art-deco Parisian apartment, with plenty of cushions for Elyot to clutch though few authentic shellac 78 rpm records for Amanda to break over his head. Chichester productions must now be queuing up to await available slots in the West End; hopefully a jukebox musical or two will slope off to make room.
     
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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