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Private Lives

Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen give accomplished performances in Richard Eyre's slightly unsettling production of Noel Coward's classic comedy about reunited ex-spouses. logo
Kim Cattrall in Private Lives
(© Nobby Clark)
Richard Eyre's new West End production of Noel Coward's comedy, Private Lives, now at the Vaudeville Theatre, is as glittering and witty as it needs to be. Moreover, it boasts considerable chemistry between its two accomplished leads, Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen. Yet it also steers slightly away from past versions of the play to deliver something a touch more unsettling than expected.

Five years after their passionate but volatile marriage ended in divorce Amanda (Cattrall) and Elyot (Macfadyen) find themselves on adjacent hotel balconies in France, both on honeymoon with their new, staid spouses. It doesn't take long for their considerable attraction to one another to reawaken and for them to run off to her Paris apartment. Theirs is a temperamental, consuming passion; they know they infuriate one another yet they can't keep apart.

Eyre doesn't neglect the dark undercurrents beneath the play's flip witty surface. This is, after all, a play where the pivotal scene involves a physical fight between Amanda and Elyot, a dance of mutual destruction where she smashes records over his head and he tips a bowl of ice cubes down her back. Love and violence walk hand in hand with this pair, and Eyre ensures this is as uncomfortable to watch as it is a slickly choreographed and perfectly timed comic set-piece. (Rob Howell's set is not quite the delicious art deco confection it might have been, but it does provide plenty of scope for destruction, full of breakable things and potential weapons.)

Cattrall is poised and confident as Amanda, even if she sometimes struggles to maintain her cut-glass accent. She gives a good account of a woman fully aware of and comfortable with her own strengths and weaknesses. At first she seems slightly unsure of herself, clad only in a bath towel in her first scene, but she warms up in every sense when Macfadyen's Elyot appears.

The actor's take on Elyot is an atypical but intriguing one. Despite his elegant attire, he's brutish and domineering, with traces of the schoolyard bully in his manner; he feels no qualms at all at the thought of striking a woman and maybe even relishes it slightly. This adds a frisson of unease to the production, especially to its final moments when the couple slink away together behind the backs of their warring other halves.

In the somewhat smaller and less appealing role of Elyot's spouse, Lisa Dillon is suitably clingy and whiny as Sybil, a character Coward does not invite the audience to sympathize with. Meanwhile, Simon Paisley Day is far more rounded as Amanda's upright husband, Victor, giving him a stiff regimental quality that works well in context. Victor is quietly appalled by the way events are turning out; he is a man surrounded by madness and unraveling slightly himself as a result. He does seem to have loved Amanda in his particular English way and at times he physically quivers with upset and desperation. The scene in which he squares up to a clearly amused Elyot is one of the high points of this extremely fine production.

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