The Whingers were a bit slow off the mark with this Private Lives. They saw the excellent production at Hampstead last year and weren’t sure they had the puissance for yet another PL, this despite Phil being quite a fan of Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City* – the TV series of course, not the disappointing, past its sell-by date film.
Andrew of course knows nothing of such televisual things and only warms up his valves if there is the promise of a Time Lord, a Marple or a bonnet. And it wasn’t even the glowing 4 and 5 star reviews that really lured them in to the Vaudeville Theatre.
No, it was a below-the-title name known only to the theatre-going cognoscenti: Simon Paisley Day. The man must be distraught at having so narrowly missed out on a coveted Whingers Award for his superb supporting performance in Entertaining Mr Sloane, a title he lost out on only because the Whingers managed to squeeze in Mike Bartlett’s Cock just before 2009 ended, resulting in them giving their much sought-after trophy to Andrew Scott.
Anyway, it was a must-see but with only rubbish seats available at TKTS thanks to the glowing notices, desperate measures were called for. A cap-in-hand, grovelling email to the PR firm elicited one complimentary ticket which – as you can imagine – caused much argument about who was going to see Act 1 and who Act 2. Anyhow, it was all resolved through the simple expedient of buying the seat next to it and normal diplomatic relationships were restored.
Noël Peirce Coward‘s famous 1930 comedy charts the gloriously silly situation of glamorous, rich, witty, divorced couple Amanda (Cattrall) and Elyot (Matthew Macfadyen who, as Andrew pointed out, actually has bonnet form courtesy of the BBC’s Little Dorrit) finding themselves occupying adjoining hotel balconies while honeymooning with respective new spouses. It soon becomes clear that while their tempestuous life together had been unbearable, life apart is not an option.
Great art holds up a mirror to real life of course and there were some uncomfortable parallels for the Whingers. Although not glamorous, rich, witty, divorced (or married or together in any sense) the Whingers do drive each other up the wall. Particularly Phil. And then there’s the tremendous age difference, here echoed by the fact that in real life Macfadyen is 35 and Cattrall 53. But then Phil (despite his age) insists that he is, like Cattrall, absurdly glamorous and youthful and the age difference goes unnoticed. He also insists that he is big and that it’s the pictures that got smaller.
Actually, Cattrall looks utterly fantastic. But more importantly, she has a real chemistry with Macfadyen, a good English accent (which occasionally in delivery reminded Phil of Joan Collins), superb comic timing and a sparkling presence.
Andrew had concerns about Macfadyen’s Elyot being so clearly not enamoured with Sibyl from the off, but Phil thought he was excellent – especially at getting comedy out of a touch of an eyebrow or the stretch of his fingers over the piano keys.
The casting is superb. All four possess comic gifts but there is also a marvellous physicality about the choices. When we first see the very large Macfadyen towering over the relatively diminutive Lisa Dillon (bonnet credentials: Cranford) we know instantly that they are a mis-match. Simon Paisley Day’s gangly Victor seems an unlikely match for the voluptuous Amanda but their unsuitability is more amusingly underlined by his repeated action of taking Amanda’s slippers from the table and putting them onto the floor.
Indeed, Andrew was highly impressed by the subtle all-round physicality of Richard Eyre‘s production which is continually punctuated by gestures, touchings and pointings and culminates in a wonderfully furious physical fight (Alison De Burgh) between Amanda and Elyot which results in some very satisfying damage to the set.
If things dip slightly in Act 3 it’s probably the fault of the play not the production but happily it all comes to a hilarious conclusion with Phil’s food-on-stage thesis getting an extra fillip thanks to some hilarious brioche gobbling. In a vain attempt to add a multi-media dimension to his thesis Phil scoured the front rows of the auditorium as soon as the curtain came down in a fruitless search for some of the crumbs spat onto the audience by Cattrall. Andrew tagged along too to fill in time as the audience slowly filtered out of the Vaudeville**.
Downsides? Well, sadly for Andrew there were quite a lot of naked feet on display, notably Macfadyen’s which seemed to be unnecessarily long and have freakishly high in-steps. Some slippers wouldn’t come amiss.
And designer Rob Howell clearly spent all his money on the 2nd and 3rd Act set in Amanda’s Parisienne apartment rather than the 1st Act balcony which has rather nasty green shutters. The apartment set is quite impressive although Phil was occasionally distracted by the appalling mural painting of ripples round the ducks. Haven’t the scenery painters heard of ellipse templates, he wondered? Very unsatisfactory. Andrew also found the set distracting as he kept wondering how the people in the studio on the floor above avoided falling through the big hole in Amanda’s ceiling.
But these are minor quibbles. With Legally Blonde playing across the road*** Private Lives proves another good reason to venture up The Strand with or without a banana in your hand (apart from the monstrous carbuncle playing a few doors away at the Adelphi).
* Nicholas Wright’s programme note suggest that Coward was written in “gay code” and that Amanda and Elyot are really two gay men, which means Cattrall hasn’t quite got away from Sex and the City. Didn’t everyone think that her character Samantha was really a gay man in disguise?
** The running time is 2 hours 15 minutes (including interval) or 2 hours 30 minutes if you include the time it takes to get the entire stalls audience out of the single exit. Add another 5 minutes if you go on a futile masticated brioche hunt.
*** We were disappointed to find that PL, like LB, is a Sonia Friedman production and that therefore we were not invited to the first night party.