Private Lives at Ambassadors Theatre review – Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge on consummate form

 (©Tristram Kenton)
(©Tristram Kenton)

Sometimes at the theatre all you want is to see a couple of consummate pros take a classic out for a spin. Here, Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers, both in their 70s, bring an autumnal tinge to Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy about a frivolous, stylish, waspish couple, who can’t live together or apart.

Christopher Luscombe’s production, brought in to London after a regional tour, looks on the outside like a solid rendition that will draw in the coach parties and won’t frighten the horses. But with older leads there is an urgency to the way Amanda and Elyot – having accidentally booked adjoining rooms in Deauville for honeymoons with their second, much-younger spouses – run off together to seize a last chance at mutual happiness.

Little of this subtext impinges on the clipped aphorisms and the witty cut and thrust of Coward’s dialogue, except perhaps when the couple contemplate mortality: “Kiss me, my darling, before your body rots.” Otherwise the clipped quips and acid put-downs sing out reassuringly.

Debonaire in a dinner jacket or a dressing gown, Havers can do this stuff in his sleep. Indeed, at times I thought he clicked into autopilot: but if ever an actor could coast on easy charm, he can.

 (©Tristram Kenton)
(©Tristram Kenton)

Hodge meanwhile is terrific, with a hooded gaze that could wither leylandii at 200 paces. She always seems absolutely alive and in the moment, even when Amanda is at her most superficial, and she makes the most familiar lines – “very flat, Norfolk” – sound fresh.

Since Coward himself originally played Elyot I used to assume he was the focus: but this revival and the recent, stark Donmar version with Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling make clear the focus is Amanda. Her disdain for interwar social conventions is more bold, her anger more bracing. Coward was considered passé for decades but he was always radical.

Veiled in comedy, the play discusses religion, morality and mortality. Amanda thinks death will be “a rather gloomy merging with everything”. Elyot, always more of a drama queen, envisages “a glorious oblivion”. It’s often easy to dismiss the main characters’ second spouses as mere stooges, but here one’s forced to think about why dull Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and silly Sybil (Natalie Walter) hitched themselves to these difficult, self-obsessed old showoffs.

For the first act, designer Simon Higlett provides a robustly dull hotel façade and two balconies with a linking gate: clearly, no one is going to vault or clamber over railings here. In the second, he unveils a gorgeous, art deco Parisian apartment complete with a baby grand piano. Elyot picks out the couple’s signature tune, Someday I’ll Find You on it. Later on, Amanda bounces his face off the keys.

The couple’s physical confrontations are understandably softened but their verbal sparring also flags a bit. There’s a definite lull midway through the second half. The reappearance of Victor and Sybil injects new pace, he with his thwarted male pomposity and she with a new cattiness.

As they, too, start to violently disagree, Hodge and Havers slip into synchronized spectator mode, as if they’re at Wimbledon, before slipping silently, complicitly, out of the door. It’s a meticulous piece of dumbshow. Like I said, consummate pros.

Ambassadors Theatre, to November 25,