Paul Gross & Kim Cattrell in Private Lives - Photo Credit: Cylla von TiedemannReviewed by James Karas
Noel Coward’s Private Lives is one of those superb plays that has a rather thin plot and scintillating dialogue that, depending on the performance, can have the audience roar with laughter or sit in silence in the theatre. More than in most plays, the repartee in the play depends on timing, accent and pitch. It has to be done a certain way to be successful.
Since it opened in London in 1930, Private Lives has been revived frequently as a vehicle for actresses with the talent, poise and je ne sait quoi to handle the role of Amanda. It is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre en route from London to Broadway starring Kim Cattrall (applause, please) and Paul Gross (applause but not as much, thank you.)
Two couples are on their honeymoon in a fancy hotel overlooking the sea in France. The couples, Sybil (Anna Madeley) and Elyot (Paul Gross), and Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and Victor (Simon Paisley-Day) have adjoining balconies. Amanda and Elyot were madly in love and married at one time. Meeting like this could be awkward and funny. It is.
When Elyot and Sybil come out on the balcony, they look at the reflection of a yacht in the water (just to set the social milieu) and she asks him if he is happy. “Of course I am. Tremendously happy” he replies. That is an innocuous line that need not mean anything. But if it is said with a slight pause at the beginning and a tiny pick up in speed at the end, it will tell us a great deal about the couple and produce a mild laugh. That is what I mean by a matter of style.
The repartee will be continued as Sybil asks Elyot if he is glad he married her, how glad he is and if his first wife, Amanda, was pretty.
Paul Gross does justice to the lines as does Madeley to her part and the opening scene brings the message that Sybil and Elyot’s marriage may have seemed like a good idea but it will not have the necessary elements to thrive as a passionate union.
We then meet Amanda and her new husband on the adjoining balcony. Soon enough, he asks her if she loves him and in comes the reply: “Of course, that’s why I’m here.” It is a simple line that provides great possibilities for intonation and style of delivery. Cattrall provides the slight pause and the right tone to indicate that the real, prosaic answer would have been something much longer and very different from the affirmative “of course”.
Amanda and Elyot are the beautiful lovers who struck each other and broke gramophone records during their fights but lived passionately, orgiastically and gorgeously at other times. Gross and Cattrall do excellent work as the loving and warring couple but one must observe that Gross tended to lose the impeccable, high-toned English accent that you want to hear.
Paisley-Day and Madelley are stuck with the roles of side-kicks. They are the ones Elyot and Amanda play off, almost the straight people in a comedy routine. They do generate their own laughs because they are pretty silly.
Paisley-Day’s Victor is a tall, straight-laced man and a perfect foil for Elyot. Elyot’s put-down of him is perfect: “I think I am a bit cleverer than you, but apparently that’s not saying much.” Victor may not be bright but Paisley-Day does excellent work in delivering his lines and producing laughter.
Equally straight-laced is Sybil, who is not too swift but has some unpleasant traits that make for good comedy. She drives Victor crazy and gets into rows with him all to good comic effect.
The production is directed by Richard Eyre who does not miss a trick in evoking the atmosphere of the play and producing all the laughs that the text suggests.
I am not as keen on the set design of Bob Howell but I admit that I paid scant attention to it. The balcony seemed fine but those green blinds did not really add anything. In any event, I was too busy watching and enjoying the show to care about furniture and furnishings.
Private Lives by Noel Coward runs from September 16 to October 30 2011 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com