Private Lives by Noel Coward. The Mill at Sonning, Reading to 3 August. 4****. William Russell.

Private Lives
By Noel Coward
The Mill at Sonning, Sonning Eye, Reading RG4 6TY to 3 August 2019.
Tues – Sat 7.30pm and matinees on selected dates. Check with box office.
Runs 2hr One interval.
TICKETS: 0118 969 8000
Reviews: William Russell 7 July.

Stunning Sonning
First things first – at £51 for a seat to see a play and get a meal of quality included in the price this is dinner theatre experience to remember. The setting, a renovated and redeveloped flour mill is very pretty and the semi circular auditorium does not have a bad sight line anywhere as far as I could see. The rake is gentle, which suits the audience to perfection and means no big heads in the row in front concealing the action. As for the programme, director Sally Hughes knows her audience – nothing to scare the wits out of Aunt Edna. The season includes this most popular of Coward’s plays, an Agatha Christie directed by Brian Blessed starring his wife and daughter, Run for Your Wife, an indestructible ancient Ray Cooney farce – he is a local resident – and Singin’ In the Rain with real rain, plastic covers provided for those in the front row. If you add a taxi to and from Reading station and the cost of a day return from London bought well in advance the day out for one would work out at what you would pay for a stalls seat in the West End, no meal and often rotten sight lines and bad seating. For a party of four clearly the £20 for the two taxis – book in advance – would reduce the bill facing a party of one by about £15. As a dinner or lunch theatre experience – I saw the show at a matinee and lunched – it is a delight, a perfect day out of town and a change from the likes of Chichester for a start.
But the play’s the thing.The problem today with Private Lives is that it belongs to an era when three acts with two intervals were acceptable. Now it tends to be performed with one interval so that Act One consists of Acts One and Two and the short third Act, a mere 30 minutes long follows after the interval. This means an excessively long long first half and slightly spoils the arc of the plot Coward has so skilfully created. Act one sets up the splendid confrontation when Elyot on honeymoon with much younger and very silly new wife Sybil discovers his ex wife Amanda is in the room next door with her new husband, a dishy stuffed shirt called Victor, and that they share a balcony. It is high comedy which ends with the pair of them abandoning their new spouses and taking refuge in Act Two in her Paris flat where the course of true love runs as rockily as it did before and they end up in a now politically incorrect series of fights. Climax is, of course, the arrival of their respective spouses at just the wrong moment.
In Act Three all sorts of reversals take place. But tagging on the fight scenes to the first half upsets the balance and there is nothing to be done about that. I imagine the logistics of theatre dining means two intervals are not on, but it is a pity.
On the plus side there is a fine set for Act one and a transformation scene for the Paris Flat for Act two which got, and deserved, a round of applause. Then there is the playing. Maybe Eva Jane Willis does not get quite the dresses Gertie Lawrence got, but she has terrific style and creates a totally wilful adorable monster perfectly, while Darrell Brooks as Elyot avoids being too camp, always a temptation in these roles Coward created for himself, and presents an older man set in his ways who likes getting them. He gets to rebuke his new wife with one of Coward’s great lines – “Don’t quibble Sybil.” Why is it great? Because it gets a laugh every time. As the unlucky second mates Tom Berkeley and Lydea Perkins strut their stuff with style and the inevitable comic maid – Coward plays always seem to have one – is nicely done by Celia Cruwys-Finnigan who gets to top and tail it all as a chanteuse from the streets with an accordion singing French songs. Director Tam Williams has ensured it all runs smoothly, set designer Michael Holt has surpassed himself not with the balcony scene but the hideous Paris flat Amanda owns, and Fight Director Alison de Burgh has ensured that when Amanda and Elyot come to blows, which is, of course, what everyone has come to see, they do so in breathtaking fashion. Watching women being struck like gongs ought to be indefensible, except that Coward’s women hold the same view about the men in their lives and hit back. They are, of course, all dreadful people who smoke, drink too much and have no obvious source of income, but it matters not. The play works as it always does as a piece of high comic style.
There is something of a Coward glut at the moment what with sex god Andrew Scott in Present Laughter at the Old Vic and Jennifer Absolutely Fabulous Saunders giving us her Madam Arcati in Blythe Spirit at Bath which is heading in due course for town. This production may not come to town – it would have been 3*** without the food – but as an experience is well worth leaving town to see.
Sibyl Chase: Lydea Perkins.
Elyot Chase: Darrell Brooks.
Victor Pryne: Tom Berkeley.
Amanda Prynne: Eva Jane Willis.
Louise/ Musical director: Celia Cruwys-Finnigan.

Director: Tam Williams.
Set Designer: Michael Holt.
Costume Designer: Natalie Titchener.
Lighting Designer: Matthew Diss.
Fight Director: Alison de Burgh.
Production Photographs; Andrea Lambis.

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