As the Torch Theatre takes us back in time with “Private Lives”, their autumn production, it’s easy to imagine the excitement of the first audiences attending Noël Coward’s latest play in 1930. A chance to glimpse into the (uncapitalised) “private lives” of two newlywed couples, to see how husbands and wives (and divorcees!) really act behind closed doors or indeed- behind the stage curtain. The glamorous setting of the French Riviera offered escapism and a stark contrast from bleak Britain during this time of great economic depression.
Fast forward almost a century (yes, really!) to the digital age of social media and reality TV, the glimpse “behind the scenes” is perhaps not so unique. Yet, once again, we find ourselves facing austere times during the current cost of living crisis so Coward’s wit, glamour and style are still hugely appreciated to take audiences away from their own mundane everyday lives and worries if only for one evening.
Noël Coward’s Private Lives
Coward caught influenza in Shanghai whilst in the middle of an extensive Asian tour. I would most likely spend this time bingeing a Netflix series, but he spent his two-week convalescence very productively sketching out the play, Private Lives, and impressively completed the actual writing of the piece in just four days. He immediately cabled Gertrude Lawrence in New York to ask her to keep Autumn 1930 free to appear in the play alongside him.
Coward received no fewer than 30 telegrams from Lawrence about the play including the infamous line that she later insisted was about the contract rather than the script: “HAVE READ NEW PLAY STOP NOTHING WRONG THAT CAN’T BE FIXED”. To which he cabled back curtly: “THE ONLY THING THAT WILL NEED TO BE FIXED IS YOUR PERFORMANCE.”
The play premiered on 18 August 1930, at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, before touring England and ending in a sold-out limited season at London’s new Phoenix Theatre.
Unsurprisingly for the time, Private Lives courted controversy while still in rehearsals when the Lord Chamberlain took exception to the second act’s love scene, labelling it too risqué in light of the fact the characters were divorced and married to others. Coward went to St. James’s Palace to plead his case by acting out the play himself and assuring the censor that with artful direction the scene would be presented in a dignified and unobjectionable manner.
Private Lives at the Torch Theatre
Private Lives is Chelsey Gillard’s first production as Artistic Director of the Torch Theatre. She “fought to direct the play here in Milford Haven” as she feels “we are once again in need of some entertainment, glamour and wit.” All of which we can never have too much of in Milford, I agree. Former Artistic Director Peter Doran enjoyed the show and gave his seal of approval. He describes Private Lives at the Torch Theatre as “A very classy production with a set to die for. Lovely cast, well directed.”
Well done to all involved on Private Lives @TorchTheatre A very classy production with a set to die for. Lovely cast, well directed – please support. @Chelsey_Gillard @ClaireCage1 @difficultstage & all cast and crew #PrivateLives #NoelCoward #theatre— Peter Doran (@Poshcosh) October 5, 2023
The plot of Private Lives is refreshingly simple on the surface. Elyot and Amanda divorced five years ago and both have recently remarried. Each new couple has booked in for their honeymoon at the same hotel on the French Riviera. In both new marriages, the honeymoon period is over before the honeymoon has actually begun. “It hasn’t started yet,” states Elyot. “Neither has mine,” replies Amanda, dryly.
There is something very satisfying about the minimal symmetrical set (designed by Kevin Jenkins) featuring the couples’ adjacent hotel balconies and the reflection of the couples and the initial plot. The repetition and echoing in the script add humour and realism. The escapism I mentioned, begins here in France, sipping cocktails on an Art Deco balcony (to me this was reminiscent of a Barbie Doll House which is not a criticism in case you’re in any doubt- I adored it!). But for Elyot and Amanda, who bump into each other on the hotel terrace, they can’t wait to escape again. They each try unsuccessfully to persuade their second spouses to take their honeymoons to Paris instead. Elyot, later recounts hilariously how funny it would have been if they’d all ended up meeting again in Paris, which has the whole audience in stitches as they are for much of the evening. Old passions are quickly rekindled and instead, they run away together, abandoning their new spouses and the remainder of the play takes place in Amanda’s Parisian flat.
A Night Out at the Theatre
With Private Lives, Gillard has put on a wonderful night out at the Torch Theatre:
“Our aim is to give people a great night out – we are even hosting themed lunches with live songs from the era for those keen for some added glamour.
“We would love to see audiences dressed up in 1930s costume ready to sip their martini and be immersed in designer Kevin Jenkins’ spectacular art deco set – it’s going to wow audiences and transport us all to a most decadent era – perfect escapism from a gloomy autumn day!”.
Excitedly we donned our berets and gloves and dressed up for the show. We made an evening of it and first headed to Madison’s Bar and Restaurant- the Marina Mile Speakeasy- for mocktails and jazz.
After our time in the elegant 1920s/30s-themed bar, we headed to the Torch. The Torch Cafe is currently serving a delicious pre-theatre supper menu which I would recommend. Unfortunately, we noticed too late at the end of the evening but they were also serving a special Private Lives vintage-style Cocktail and Mocktail Menu-how classy! We would definitely have ordered one for the interval if we’d realised and I encourage readers to do so- have one for us!
As it was Press Night the foyer was hustling and bustling with familiar faces and the wine (orange juice for us) was flowing. We were treated to an entertaining choir on arrival and the talented Sarah Benbow singing beautifully as always, accompanied by Mark Jones playing the piano in the bar- making it a truly enjoyable evening.
Our Thoughts on Private Lives at the Torch Theatre
As is often the case, simplicity is harder to achieve than it looks and Gillard, in her directing debut at the Torch Theatre does a superb job. The script is as fast-paced as when the words tumbled out of Coward’s brilliant brain onto paper. The cast does an incredible job of performing the lines at speed with fluency. There is an enjoyable rhythm of overlapping flowing conversation in the performing of Coward’s words. Claire Cage is strong, sultry and sophisticated playing Amanda, Elyot’s equal who gives as good as she gets. Francois Pandolfo stars as our charismatic leading man, Elyot, who we can’t help but love to hate. Paisley Jackson and Jude Deeno do a splendid job supporting the leading couple as sweet but insipid Sybil and conventional Victor.
Coward recognised that the audience for which he wrote his plays wanted, above all, to be entertained. As Elyot says, “Let’s savour the delight of the moment” but it can’t be denied that his work covers many important issues about love, gender, sex (and sexuality), class, marriage, divorce, politics and religion, and his social commentary gathers even more weight as the years roll on. There is so much to say and discuss but I’ll just touch on a few points (or it will take me longer to write the review than it took Coward to write the whole play).
Coward wanted Amanda to be Elyot’s equal. He mentioned that the leading actors are playing the same role. “Amanda and Elyot are practically synonymous”. During its time, this was a groundbreaking point to make. It was only seven years earlier, in 1923, that the Matrimonial Causes Act made it possible for either partner to divorce a spouse on the grounds of adultery (an option previously open only to men). This made divorce much easier and less stigmatised for women. Just two years before, all women over 21 gained the vote, and married women could now access contraception. Amanda embodies an independent modern woman, with her short hairstyle and bias-cut silk gown. Her advanced views include a challenge to male sexual hypocrisy. When Elyot snarls out of jealousy: “It doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous”. Amanda corrects him with: “It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous.” It was important to Coward that she gave as good as she got in the “fight scene”(more on this later). “I struck him too. Once I broke four gramophone records over his head. It was very satisfying,” Amanda says to her new husband.
Love and Marriage
The 1920s and 30s were an interesting time for marriage, which Elyot describes as a “frowsy business”. Divorce was more obtainable (and on the increase) but still carried a huge social stigma. When Amanda points out that they’re living in sin, Elyot argues that technically they’re not living in sin “according to the Catholics; Catholics don’t recognise divorce.” to which she replies, “We may be alright in the eyes of Heaven, but we look like being in the hell of a mess socially.”
I feel there is more lust and passion than real genuine love between our star-crossed lovers, Elyat and Amanda. In the play love and romance are portrayed as an illusion conjured by romantic songs, alcohol and the moonlight.
“How potent cheap music is.” they agree as their song “Someday I’ll Find You”, also penned by Coward follows them around.
Even when Elyat proclaims the deliciously romantic words, “There isn’t a particle of you that I don’t know, remember, and want.” I can’t truly believe they’re in love. They have a strong magnetic attraction to each other and can’t stay apart. They give their second chance a go and try hard to stay civilized with each other, as society would expect. But even invoking the codeword “Solomon Issacs”, or “Sollocks” can’t stop them from turning angry, animalistic and violent against each other after only a couple of passion-filled days together. They’re stuck in this vicious circle of abuse, both characters are not all good or bad. In the end, we may surmise that they deserve each other.
Living Behind a Mask
Coward lived his life having to mask his homosexuality to the public, during a time when it was still illegal. In so-called “civilized society” there is a strange concept that means the right to love can be decided by law and religion. But Coward also recognised that everyone wore a mask of some sort in public. I mentioned social media and reality TV at the beginning of this post and even in this digital age, we see a lot we don’t actually see the whole truth of people’s hearts and minds. If anything, I think we may be wearing more masks (and filters) than ever. As Amanda observes: “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”
The audience lapped up Coward’s humorous quips, laughing most of the way through the play. The four actors show perfect comic timing and fantastic physical comedy. I think I most related with the couple when they were trying to get comfortable on the ornate sofa. At the end, I heard heartening comments such as “I haven’t laughed so much in ages!”, “Oh my belly hurts from laughing so much!” and “It’s so nice to get out of the house and have a good laugh with friends.” The audience loved it!
The Big Fight
Personally, Rebecca and I, found the fight scene and the laughter that accompanied it uncomfortable. There are content advisories including verbal and physical content in the show and these are well earned. If my memory serves me correctly, in previous productions this scene has been more light slaps and childish frustration or the couple comically hitting themselves instead of each other. In the show, when Amanda breaks the record over Elyat’s head, he responds with a really hard hit. I winced and looked away and cringed hearing the laughter. Whether it’s because our attitudes have changed so much since the show debuted when some men genuinely believed “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs” or because the acting and choreography (by Bethan Eleri) is now so realistic but it made for very uneasy viewing. I think in the past, the play has been criticised for playing down the domestic violence (on both sides) and by playing it for real it does highlight that this is a serious issue.
Entertaining and Thought Provoking
We had a lovely evening visiting Madisons and the Torch Theatre. Well done and thank you to everyone involved in putting on the show. We recommend you buy tickets, get dressed up, book a meal at the Torch Cafe, watch the show and enjoy a cocktail- simply divine! The play that was once described as a piece of fluff has endured long after the world it is set in has disappeared. Private Lives ticks off all of Coward’s aims in a play to: “Coax it (the audience), charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry and make it think, but above all…never, never, never bore the living hell out of it”.’ You will either laugh all night, come out ready for a discussion or both- either way just as Noël Coward hoped- you will be entertained!
Book Private Lives at the Torch Theatre
Private Lives has a three-week run at the Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, opening on Wednesday 4th October (press night Thursday 5th) until Saturday 21st October and is proud to be part of the Coward Foundation’s COWARD125 Festival, a two-year celebration of Noël Coward’s extraordinary life in the lead-up to Coward’s 125th birthday in 2024.
WED 04 OCT – SAT 21 OCT 2023
PRICE: £23.00 | £20.00 CONS | £10.00 UNDER 26 – 25% off for members*
Preview Performance – 4th October
BSL Performance – 10th October (Interpretation by Liz May)
*up to 4 tickets per member
To book tickets, visit the Torch Theatre Box Office or call or visit the Box Office on 01646 695267.