Review of Loft Theatre Company production of Private Lives (2013)

One of many past slogans suggested for Noel Coward’s best-known play is that anything will do as long as it is neatly done.

Certainly this suggests lightweight flippancy and therefore a stronger than normal dependence on performances. It is possible to look more deeply, of course, bearing in mind Coward’s edgy attitude towards love and sexuality and an underlying grimness about what really matters in making relationships work.

Either way, subtlety and consistency are essentials in any staging of this well-worn piece and in this instance both qualities only come in fits and starts.

Elegance, however superficial, has to be a priority and can certainly be found in delightful set designs by Kimberlee Green and the play’s director Vanessa Comer.

It is there again in the central performance of Ruth MacCallum as the spirited and volatile Amanda, who is indecently quick in snatching an unexpected opportunity to ditch her new spouse and rekindle an old flame. With the air of a 1930s Penelope Keith, she sweeps spectacularly about her French hotel terrace and subsequent Paris flat with aristocratic disdain for propriety and even normal behaviour.

The problem arising is that, apart from occasional chirpy moments from Julie-Ann Randell’s less sophisticated Sybil, she is on her own in Coward-land, that unique theatrical environment of suspended disbelief in which the high-society manners of a far-gone age are comically indulged.

The men play only in routine farce mode which simply doesn’t blend with Coward’s delicate dessert of impassioned self-expression and stylised surrealism. As a result, what should be potent silences crackling with sexual tension merely seem to be overlong pauses that hinder the plot. And lines like ‘Don’t quibble, Sybil’ register only as contrived tack-ons.

Noel Coward, like Agatha Christie in another far-away galaxy, needs to be served up as a highly individualistic type of souffle. Here, alas, we have a rather ordinary pancake.

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Independent reviews by Peter McGarry

Peter McGarry is an experienced, independent professional theatre critic who has agreed to review Loft Theatre Company productions.

The agreement with the Loft is that Peter is free to express his opinions for good or ill. The Loft Theatre Company has no control whatsoever over the content of these reviews and will never comment publicly on what he writes.