Noel Coward's Private Lives is currently being revived on the west end stage at Shaftesbury Avenue's Gielgud Theatre. Premiered in Edinburgh in 1930 before moving to London and then Broadway, critic John Lahr would later describe it as being "Minimal as an art deco curve...a plotless play for purposeless people".
Whilst I see his point I disagree. Private Lives uses the relationship of Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne (formerly Mrs Chase number one) as a vehicle to consider a number of issues still pertinent today, not least the position of women. During one of their many spats following their reconciliation after divorce, (despite having re-married in the meantime) Elyot questions Amanda on whether or not she had "affairs" during their five years of separation. He is appalled when she tells him she has and when challenged that he too had affairs replies "But I am a man". Related issues come up too. Interestingly there is a conversation about growing older that includes reference to rejuvenating hormones (!) whilst Amanda's generation of upper middle class women would have had access to Marie Stopes' book Married Love - which encouraged family planning, explaining various methods of contraception and enabling women of Amanda's class to live more freely.
It would be wrong to think that anything other than a small minority of people were able to live like Elyot and Amanda in the 1920's and 1930's and this is to some extent born out by a remark from the hapless Sybil - unfortunate and deserted second wife of Elyot who, commenting on their riotous behaviour says "I had no idea there were people who live that way". Few people would have had. I was reminded a little of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust by the selfish behaviour of our privileged characters in Private Lives, the only difference being that there were at least a couple of noble characters in Waugh's novel.
Whilst watching I had to remind myself that the play had been written in the 1920's and that as well as having some contemporary themes, others might be presented in a different way to today, hence the reference to a woman with "a bone through her nose", "strange desires for Chinamen" and the presentation of domestic violence as somehow amusing. Interestingly I sensed hesitation in the audience during the two scenes featuring domestic violence (from both male and female characters) which Coward may have intended as almost slapstick, but which are viewed differently today.
The current production features a great performance from Anna Chancellor as Amanda and good performances from Toby Stephens as Elyot, Anthony Calf as Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman as Sibyl. However, I was completely won over by Sue Kelvin's cameo role as the French maid Louise, and her complete disdain for her English employers and their unruly and loutish behaviour, referring to them as "Les idiots". Nice one Sue.
And going back to Lahr's comment, there was another star of the show - the set in the second and third acts which was an exquisite Parisian art deco apartment with gold plated doors, Eileen Gray influenced rugs, day beds, beautiful lamps and crackly jazz records on the wind-up phonogram. I am assuming this was the work of Anthony Ward, designer. Fantastic.