Review: Witty comedy is a winner (Private Lives, Peterborough Key Theatre, until Nov 15)

Private Lives'Photography � Sheila Burnett
Private Lives'Photography � Sheila Burnett

Charging downstage actress Olivia Beardsley as Sybil aimed a slap like a pistol shot at the cheek of Victor played by Kieran Buckeridge. Whereupon he did the only thing possible, seizing her in his arms and kissing her passionately. A kiss which she returned with equal fervour. The lights went down, the house lights came up, and Noel Coward’s Private Lives reached its inevitable conclusion.

Few people in the large audience will have failed to grasp the author’s pessimistic view about the hopelessness of relations between the sexes. Especially as exactly the same thing had happened minutes earlier when Amanda, seductively played by Helen Keeley, administered a similar smack to Elyot’s cheek. Despite a brilliantly withering performance by Jack Hardwick, the best I can say for him is that he richly deserved it!

For just beneath its surface this witty comedy focuses exclusively on the inability of men and women to get on together. Except after outbursts of anger and exasperation when they’re overtaken by sexual desire. A view espoused by G. K. Chesterton who argued years before that the two sexes could only be united when at white heat.

But though there’s no sympathy or understanding between the four protagonists they literally never stop talking! In fact this symmetrically constructed play consists almost entirely of dialogues, with two people going at one other hammer and tongs. At first it’s Elyot and his new bride Sybil in a hotel room in Deauville. Then it’s Amanda and her new husband Victor in an adjoining room.

Victor disappears and Amanda’s dialogue with Elyot begins. He’s her ex-husband and feelings between them escalate to the point where he deserts his bridal suite and crosses into Amanda’s territory. This is an undoubted theatrical highlight and Helen Keeley and Jack Hardwick made the most of it, playing against an elegant set designed by Frankie Bradshaw.

They are still together in Paris at the beginning of Act Two having decided that their divorce was a mistake. But very soon they are bickering and fighting again.

Sybil and Victor then appear together and a new dialogue begins. They desperately desire to sort something out, and in the end the situation is apparently resolved when Amanda and Elyot quietly slip away together. Which is where the play ends and this review began. Only an ostrich however could believe that either of these fragile relationships could possibly endure.

As a French-speaking maid Rachael Holmes-Brown contributed a cameo performance, and the snappy direction was by Michael Cabot.