Private Lives – Review

Feb 19 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩   Comic pleasure

John Hopkins as Elyot Chase and Kirsty Besterman as Amanda Prynne. Photo © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

John Hopkins and Kirsty Besterman. Photo © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Fri 14 Feb – Sat 8 Mar 2014
Review by Hugh Simpson

Comic and crowd-pleasing, the Lyceum’s production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives provides fine entertainment.

This is the familiar story of Elyot and Amanda, a couple who went through an acrimonious divorce. They now find themselves at the same hotel on the first night of their honeymoons with their respective second spouses Sybil and Victor – and discover, furthermore, that they are unable to live either with or without each other.

The humour and effectiveness of the play depends entirely on the interaction between the two leads. While this is largely effective, it is not yet entirely successful.

By the second act, the chemistry between Elyot (John Hopkins) and Amanda (Kirsty Besterman) helps us to believe that they are indeed a couple in the grip of something they cannot control. This makes sense retrospectively of the events of a somewhat flat first act, which lacks some of the necessary sparkle.

Elyot and Amanda’s first meeting showed two people who seemed mildly annoyed to be reunited, rather than the coup de foudre that leads them to run off together again.

The cast also take a while to get their comic rhythm going, which means that the opening is not as funny as it could be. This is still occasionally a problem in the second act; without very careful playing, the contrast between the humour and the violence on display can seem very awkward. A valiant effort is made in this regard, but it is not wholly successful.

“Splendidly louche and decidedly dangerous…”

By the third act, however, the whole cast have the timing spot on, and it is the funniest part of the evening as a result. As the run progresses, the whole evening may very well be of this standard.

John Hopkins as Elyot Chase and Kirsty Besterman as Amanda Prynne Photo © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Kirsty Besterman with John Hopkins. Photo © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Hopkins’s Elyot starts off as tetchy and disagreeable, but by the end he is splendidly louche and decidedly dangerous, relishing the destruction he creates with a comic glee reminiscent of the Marx Brothers – he even essays a Groucho walk along the sofa. Besterman is a joy as Amanda, displaying excellent timing and a gift for gestures and expressions both conniving and ludicrous.

The other parts are thankless tasks, being essentially Aunt Sally figures to be knocked down, but Ben Deery is convincingly pompous as Victor, while Emily Woodward’s transformation from squeaky Sybil into a ‘malicious vixen’ is deftly handled. Nicola Roy also contributes an effective comic cameo as Louise.

Director Martin Duncan keeps the whole thing bowling along, and the entire production conjures up a world that is recognisably 1930s while not really keeping to any kind of naturalism. This is aided by Francis O’Connor’s eye-popping sets, with a strangely parallactic hotel followed by a garish Paris flat that dwarfs its inhabitants, and whose huge reflective surfaces mirror the lovers’ vanity

The characters’ accents, furthermore, are more like the Estuary-tinged voices of today’s upper classes than the plumy 1930s version – a sensible choice, as a more ‘authentic’ accent could prove somewhat distracting.

All of this is entirely fitting in a play that ultimately eschews reality. The whole notion of divorce may have given the story a frisson originally, but once that has gone there is not much to root the story in real life. In the end, it seems to be as much about theatricality as it is about relationships; Duncan’s decision to use younger actors as Elyot and Amanda than is often the case (which returns to Coward’s original idea) may put their behaviour in context a little more, but in the end it is impossible to explain, except by saying, as Amanda does, that nobody is normal in their private life.

There is a great deal of fun to be had here, not to mention some huge laughs. What this play really needs, however, is a production bursting with snap and fizz, and despite the best efforts of all, some of that elusive magic is still missing, and a production that flirts tantalisingly with something special ultimately falls just short. As it is, however, this is a distinctly enjoyable evening.

Running time 2 hours 15 mins including 2 intervals
Run ends Sat 8 March 2014
Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.45 pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30 pm
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9AX
Details and tickets on Lyceum website:


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Comments (2)

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  1. Suzanne Senior says:

    I saw this tonight (the last night) and loved it. I don’t know when you saw it but I thought the first act was the funniest and the whole thing was a delight.