Dreadful snob that he was, Noël Coward would probably have detested the lowest-common-denominator slapstick antics of hit ’90s sitcom ‘Bottom’. But Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson’s violent odd-couple comedy is exactly what moments of Jonathan Kent’s turbocharged revival of Coward’s 1930 classic reminded me of – and it’s all the better for it.
The ‘heroes’ of Coward’s piece are Elyot and Amanda, a divorced couple who paths cross again while honeymooning with their respective new spouses. Within a matter of minutes they’ve forgotten the numerous good reasons why they broke up in the first place and have recklessly absconded to Amanda’s Parisian flat.
They’re idiots, basically, but Kent’s full-throttle revival embraces their irresponsibility gleefully. Toby Stephens’s floppy-haired Elyot (he really does look like a younger Rik Mayall) and Anna Chancellor’s chic Amanda come across like high-strung children, utterly in thrall to their respective ids, bouncing and pinging off each other like two human pinballs as they demolish Amanda’s garret in a blur of fucking and fighting. He is impossibly feckless; she is preposterously touchy; they probably deserve each other, if only because it’s inconceivable anybody else could settle down with either of them.
There is a clear sense in Kent’s production that these two people are actually rather neurotic and damaged. Yet in the hands of Stephens and Chancellor they’re utterly delightful, a kinetic double act who lob tart one-liners at each other like balloons full of fizzing acid. The sense of glee radiating from the stage is palpable, and while there are a couple of moments where the physically violent side to their relationship is uncomfortable, Kent sort of gets away with it by grounding it all in the slapstick tradition.
As the pair’s jilted spouses, Anna-Louise Plowman and Anthony Calf feel like they don’t really get much of a look in, and funny as it is, anybody suggesting that ‘Private Lives’ is more than lightweight is looking for a heft that’s not there. But all that accepted, this is more or less unmitigated fun.
By Andrzej Lukowski