Private Lives delivers big on chemistry and passion
"Big Romantic Stuff." First uttered by Amanda who lays across the bed in a silk housecoat, soon echoed by Elyot on the brink of a passionate fight, the three words do more to describe NoÃ«l Coward's Private Lives than any lengthy synopsis. The passion-filled affair features a love so perfect, a love so intense, that the pair of birds are nestled in each others arms or reaching for each other's throats.
The play's success hinges on the chemistry of its two led stars. The couple needs to muster up the energy to verbally spar for three plus rounds, while also finding the spark that fuses the two together. It's Beatrice and Benedict paired with alcohol and cigarettes. Thankfully, the talents of Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross translate from television to the stage. Gross is an exceptionally strong partner to Cattrall, who first took the role in London. The two are a delightful Amanda and Elyot who, for the most part, find the passion, be it a kiss or a slap. It's a well-rounded production that favours physical comedy over campy wit.
Two balconies at a hotel in the French Riviera are the setting for act one, when Amanda, with uptight spouse Victor in tow, realizes her ex-lover Elyot, newly wed to the young Sybil, is staying next door. The two admit they share little love for their new beaus and run away to Paris together with nary a note explaining their turncoat decision. In Paris, the couple realizes old habits die hard as they cuddle and harass, make up and fight again. In the final act, the wronged partners turn up to confront the lovers.
Coward's world features a distinctive voice — it's filled with quick, trippingly constructed sentences, and a host of one-liners that are made to land on the right note. You have to buy into the pace of Coward-speak, with its exaggerations and syntax, to enjoy the conflict-fueled comedy. Richard Eyre brings strong direction to the play. There isn't a scene where Cattrall and Gross falter on the speed of the dialogue. Eyre punctuates the scenes with a lot of physical comedy, unexpected bursts of exuberance from Cattrall and a lot of playfulness from Gross. The barn burner of a fight, which the couple tries to avoid all play, is hard not to enjoy. Although the problematic spousal abuse is the hot potato handed to Gross to clean up.
As the glamorous Amanda, Cattrall showcases an overt comic touch leagues different from the cynical humour of Samantha. It's a charming side to the actress so rarely seen on screen. She commands the stage with a self-assured confidence, but shows flashes of Amanda's vulnerability that give layer to the character. While her delivery is placed an octave higher than her natural register (which gives the impression that she's continually reaching), her performance settles into a better rhythm in the second act.
Gross deserves strong praise for his portrayal of the notorious cad, Elyot. The character does flippant better than most, and Gross nails his devilish charm. He's more convincing as the sensuous lover and less believable as the occasional wife-slapper (there's an uncomfortable note in the 1930 comedy here). Gross has some genuinely funny moments at the piano, and injects a lot of great stage business into the tight dialogue. He's set to make a splash for his November Broadway debut.
Simon Paisley Day, as Amanda's husband in waiting, plays the stiff-upper-lip with grace. In a play about the spirited performances, Day's picture of subtle restraint balances the egos of Amanda and Elyot. Without a strong performance from Day, all the shouting would have overwhelmed.
Set designer Rob Howell has spared no expense in bringing the French scenery to the stage. The shuttered hotel is a quaint backdrop to the opening act, while an over-the-top Parisian hideaway, complete with the world's most elaborate fish tank, defies belief. It's a bit of a distracting departure from the romance of Paris that, while impressive, is too much sparkle and shine.
Amanda and Elyot are the classic pair — lovers cut from the same cloth. Cattrall and Gross commit to finding the passion and fireworks at the heart of their dalliance, and Eyre has brought out the very best in these two.
Private Lives, by NoÃ«l Coward, is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre from September 16 - October 30. Tickets are $35+
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