Private Lives by Noel Coward. The Donmar, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2 to 27 May 2023. ***stars. William Russell.

The run looks like selling out already, which is good for the Donmar coffers in these straightened times, but this production of Coward’s written in four days 1930 comedy about Amanda and Elyot who fight when they are together but cannot do without one another suffers from director Michael Longhurst playing up the violence, a hideously cluttered stage and some of the ugliest clothes ever. The soufle does not actually collapse but it is a pretty close run thing. Rachael Stirling is a statuesque Amanda – she towers over the diminutive Victor (Sargon Yelda), her new husband. Stephen Mangan is a remarkably scruffy Elyot with a rather large waistline who cannot even look elegant in a dressing gown fares rather better with Laura Carmichael as a nicely irritating Sybil. Mangan and Sterling cope with the verbal exchanges and Fight Director Kate Waters has to be congratulated on the fact they survive what they are asked to do in Act two. The problem is that abusive marital relationships are not funny today – they were not funny when Coward wrote the play. But if you accept that it is about puppets dancing to his tune – wealthy, glamorous people, able to travel at will, who don’t work and wear clothes perfectly – not real people – then it works. The fighting is more spoilt kids in the nursery tossing pillows at one another and ripping the arms off favourite dolls than doing real damage as here.

Although it was not greatly admired in 1930 over the years the play has been revived endless times and audiences have flocked – whether the psychology of the relationship works is dubious but provided the play spanks along briskly that does not matter, especially if the cast are all gorgeous to look at, their clothes to die for, and the hotel and Amanda’s flat places most people can only dream of inhabiting. It was a showcase for Coward and his lifelong friend Gertrude Lawrence and over the years has become one in which glamorous theatre stars strutted their stuff. Stirling, Mangan, Carmichael and Yeldon perform it with a will and most of the good lines get their usual laughs but the attempt to lend some sort of realism to it all means some of it simply does not work. I reckon Coward would have had a few things to say to them all.

Just why we had to have a lady playing the violin and a gentleman playing the cello providing music in between times is anybody’s guess and the Deauville hotel in which the honeymooners had ended up in adjoining suites looked more like a two star than the five star establishment it ought to be. Nul points for Bechtler for the set and costumes and only a few Longhurst for his direction, but if the box office tills ring and the seats get filled that is all to the good – and may be, as well as a tribute to the play’s reputation as a good night out, due to the TV clout of Mangan, Stirling and Carmichael.

Elyot: Stephen Mangan.

Amanda: Rachael Stirling.

Sybil: Laura Carmichael.

Victor: Sargan Yeldon.


Faoileanne Cunningham & Harry Napier.

Director. Michael Longhurst.

Designer: Hildegard Bechtler.

Lighting DesignerL Jack Knowles.

Souond Designer: Giles Thomas.

Composer: Simon Stater.

Movement Director: Chi-San Howard.

Fight Director: Kate Waters.

Production Photograph: Marc Brenner.

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