Very public private life is a hit again

Imogen Stubbs and Simon Robson star in Private Lives.
Imogen Stubbs and Simon Robson star in Private Lives.
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Private Lives - Royal Exchange, Manchester

IF there’s a worse – or funnier – way of starting a honeymoon than finding your first wife/husband gazing longingly out to sea from the next balcony of your luxury South of France hotel, then Noel Coward clearly couldn’t think of it.

Not that he needed to, this 80-plus year old vehicle, knocked up by Noel Coward in a few days, with Gertrude Lawrence and himself in mind, feels just as fresh and relevant today as it did in the 1930s (and indeed at this theatre’s first revival of it in 1995).

Elyot and Amanda divorced five years ago after a tempestuous three-year marriage.

But just as when living under the same roof they realised they couldn’t live together, now – after a marvellously executed balcony scene – it dawns on them that they can’t live apart either.

Both have re-married with too much haste and not enough thought – Elyot to the pretty but subservient Sibyl, Amanda to the accommodating but spiritless Victor.

Formalities over and fire beginning to burn in their hearts again, it’s down to Imogen Stubbs and Simon Robson to pick up the dramatic baton carried by so many famous actors before them and make the two basically headstrong and amoral leading roles convincing and endearing.

With the aid of Coward’s near-perfect dialogue and their own stage chemistry, both manage it perfectly.

Stubbs’ waif-like figure, boundless ene-rgy (leaping onto a piano, then physically battling with her ex-spouse) and marvellous facial expressions make her the perfect Amanda.

Robson likewise combines the necessary elements of charmer and bully required by the other half of a couple, impetuous enough to ditch their new partners and head for a convenient luxury Paris apartment.

Part Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, part Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (without the taming bit), its physicality is quite shocking at times, but all in the cause of comically dissecting that frequently flawed institution of marriage.

Robin Duke