Private Lives, Ambassadors Theatre, 2023
Photo: Tristram Kenton
  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Recommended


Private Lives

3 out of 5 stars

Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers star in this breezily enjoyable production of Coward’s timeless comedy


Time Out says

Pour yourself a cocktail, darling, and get ready for an almost totally unchallenging revival of Noël Coward’s most pristine comedy. But Christopher Luscombe’s production of ‘Private Lives’ – which had its first outing at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2021 – is as pleasurable as it is safe. Stuffed full of dinner jackets, ball gowns and childlike quarrels, there’s no attempt to reinvent Coward’s classic comedy of manners. Still, this tale of a couple equally drawn to and repelled by one another, gets the laughs rolling in thick and fast. 

Perhaps it all feels slightly safe coming hot off the heels of the Donmar’s darker, more aggressive version, which starred Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling. Whilst Michael Longhurst’s production uncharacteristically cranked up the domestic violence of Coward’s play, this one embraces its traditionalism in all its glory. Beginning on a doll house balcony set, we meet former married couple Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge) on their respective second honeymoons. Driven by Coward’s own glorious music, they wander off from their airhead neew partners and fall back into each other’s arms. With such chemistry, they can’t resist a second stab at making their exhilarating, dangerous love story work.  

If there’s one stroke of real originality here, then it is the older ages of the two leads. Both Havers and Hodge are in their seventies, but both still look supple as they flail about the stage, bickering, flirting and roaring at each other with real glee. The duo have their roles down to a tee; Havers is suave, quick-witted and gloriously good fun, while Hodge leans into Amanda’s citrus sarcasm and omnipresent eye rolling. Amanda and Elyot’s mutual attraction is brittle and explosive, but with these two actors at the helm it makes as much sense as is possible.

With more senior actors, the urgency of the script and the need for quick decisions is accelerated. Could this be their last shot at lifelong bliss and mutual adoration? Maybe? But the possibility makes the lines sting with a newfound punch; when Elyot teases with the line, ‘Kiss me, my darling, before your body rots’ the potential of mortality bangs with a thud.

Following the pink-tinged set of the giddy act one, we step into the inky, spherical red walls of Amanda’s Paris flat. The design, by Simon Higlett, marks a sharp change in tone, and here the couple’s resurgent lust should curdle into vicious cruelty. Luscombe’s production, though, never quite digs into the fury hidden within Coward’s humour, and instead the couple’s physical confrontation at the end of act two is met with sniggers rather than shock from the audience.

But if it’s a pleasant, giggle-fueled evening at the theatre you’re after, then Havers and Hodge have got you covered. There might not be anything truly novel in here, but it is hard to knock time spent with such delightfully exuberant actors.


from £25. Runs 2hr
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