Private Lives, Bolton Octagon, 26th March – 18th April

Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners opens with two honeymooning couples discovering their hotel terraces – and their exes. Cue the set-up for all kinds of hilarious consequences, plus a glimpse into the new hedonistic way of living – multiple partners, champagne-fuelled parties, staying up all night dancing… All good larks, but the problem with Private Lives is that it has a lot to live up to following the top-notch production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange four years ago, and starring accomplished actress Imogen Stubbs.

However, while Fiona Hampton’s Octagon interpretation of leading lady Amanda isn’t as cute and coquettish as Stubbs’, she does still get the laughs with her over-the-top performance. The whole thing, actually, is played for effect – when Victor (Niall Costigan) and Sibyl (Jessica Baglow) arrive at the Paris flat to find Amanda and Elyot (Harry Long) rolling around on the floor fighting, for example, their gaping mouths do overegg the pudding somewhat. There’s so much hamminess throughout, in fact, that we end up losing something of the French maid character, Louise (Chiraz Aïch), who is supposed to be a tut-tutting, lip-pursing cliché, aghast at the behaviour of the English jet set. It’s a bit of a shame as Noel Coward’s script doesn’t really need such overemphasis – the witty one-liners and clever quips and banter speak for themselves, such as the famous “Very flat, Norfolk” joke.

There are some nice touches in Elizabeth Newman’s direction – I particularly liked the disco ball moment when divorced couple Amanda and Elyot fall for each other again – music started playing and the stalls were bathed in gently sparkling lights. Up in the rafters, alongside the mirrorball, there was also a spectacular-looking chandelier, but unfortunately I doubt that everyone saw it as it remained firmly above our heads. The set for act one wasn’t particularly inspired, with cheap-looking wrought iron outdoor tables and chairs. The second and third acts, on the other hand, boasted an astoundingly good Art Deco daybed and matching armchair and table, plus a working gramophone, a splendidly selected globe bar and, of course, a piano. Having to play live on stage is a challenge Long rose to well as Elyot, and the singing and dancing from Long and Hampton all carried the fun along (although the fighting seemed a little on the over-choreographed side).

And there is much fun and the play is enjoyable. The laughs are definitely here – it’s just that perhaps the audience doesn’t need quite so much help in doling them out.

Sarah-Clare Conlon

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