Jay Gent was at Torch Theatre for the press night of Torch Theatre Company’s latest production, comedy, Private Lives.
It’s the VIP night of the Torch Theatre Company’s latest production, and escape is what’s on everyone’s minds: For a full house of patrons, escape from the dark and drizzly cloak of autumn shrouding the West End of Wales and from the equally dour and dreary 21st century and its attendant woes – and Artistic Director Chelsey Gillard could not have chosen a better antidote to our modern day blues than Noel Coward’s sparkling and savage comedy of manners Private Lives, recreating the high life of the decadent 1930s, lushly recreated to every last inch from the art deco sets and furnishings to the exquisite costumes.
Escape is also the name of the game for Private Lives’ quartet of bright young things. For anyone unfamiliar with Coward’s prototype bedroom farce, the ‘sit’ of this ‘com’ is what happens when divorced couple, playboy Elyot (Francois Pandolfo) and catty Amanda (Claire Cage), find themselves enjoying their respective honeymoons with their current partners, tantrum-prone Sybil (Paisley Jackson) and childlike Victor (Jude Denoo) – in adjacent hotel rooms. The first act commences with us witnessing the former lovers already jaded with their much less worldly other halves, only for the inevitable reunion across their adjoining balconies to send the ill-fated pair into a tailspin as they plot to conceal the ill-fated booking from their other halves who react – understandably – with confusion and consternation, then for their dormant passion to reignite as they find themselves as equally repulsed and intoxicated with each other as they were before they parted, and act two catches up with Elyot and Amanda having absconded to an atelier in Paris to resume their intense relationship. Inevitably, Sybil and Victor catch up with them some time later and sparks – and fists – fly.
For the Greatest Generation, playwright, composer, raconteur and bon viveur Noel Coward was one of the leading lights of the entertainment world and became an icon for a very British brand of Martini-dry wit, erudition and sophistication; over the passage of time he’s become a shorthand for a kind of souffle-light, mannered, stiff upper lip sensibility that was rendered quaint and old-fashioned with the arrival of The Angry Young Men and rock and roll, always portrayed in pop culture spoofs as clad in a silk dressing gown and cravat, cigarette holder permanently aloft – although his star quality still had enough currency for him to merit a guest star appearance in one of the touchstones of Swinging London, 1969’s The Italian Job, and as a lyricist his influence can be strongly discerned in the songs of latterday pop fops such as Pet Shop Boys, The Divine Comedy and
This hazy, soft-focus retrospective characterising of Coward and the rarified, upper class milieu he inhabited has in some ways blunted how bracingly ‘modern’, spiky and subversive his work was – in much the same way as Evelyn Waugh’s dark comedy novels such as ‘Vile Bodies’ achieved, Coward probed that world’s starchy, buttoned-down veneer of decorum to reveal the acidic, often toxic, emotions beneath its “Pip-pip, old chap” surface – intense passion, jealousy, rivalry, venality, spite, bitterness, duplicity… It’s for this reason that Coward’s Brief Encounter – successfully tackled by the Torch Theatre in their 2015 season – still packs an emotional punch.
This production of Private Lives brings all these conflicting elements to fore, without needing to alter a word from Coward’s pen or having to relocate it to an ‘edgy’ contemporary setting, because the superficial, pretentious affectations of its characters IS the ‘edge’. This is the upper class world of the British Empire between the two wars, where sophistication and sadism, decorum and decadence were two sides of the same coin, and Elyat and Amanda embody the privileged hedonism and narcissism of Waugh’s bright young things.
The contemporary element of this production comes from being free from the constraints of the period Private Lives was written in and set during; Coward was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was not only illegal but also classed as a mental illness, and gentlemen such as Coward were euphemistically described as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘confirmed bachelors’, and a queer subtext can be discerned in much of his work. When we first encounter Elyat and Victor in the Riveria-set first act of the production, Pandolfo and Denoo knowingly play their roles with a sexual ambiguity that acknowledges the queer coding of the characters found in the arch innuendo of the text (which initially suggests that Elyat and Sybil’s marriage is one of convenience) and their alternately louche and effete mannerisms (“Oh so gay”); that the roles have been appropriately cast to young and attractive actors of great physicality also removes barriers of accessibility to a modern audience, so much so that when they jest flippantly of concepts such as atheism, adultery, progressiveness, female independence, it subtly reminds us that for those who lived in this era, it was the peak of white-hot modernism, really the birth of the twentieth century, the world of leisure, recorded sound (albeit brittle shellac 78s rather than MP3s) and a generational shift in values and morality.
The show is also surprisingly dark, as the riotous second act descends into bitchy bon mots, physical conflict (the show’s content warning is not unearned), copious slugs of brandy, and a kind of unpeeling of the layers of Elyat and Amanda’s toxic mutual infatuation; but comedy is here also, with physical comedy coming to the fore in the form of Tom & Jerry slapstick violence as Elyat and Amanda become progressively more unhinged. Cage’s Amanda devolves from silk-gowned ice maiden to feral tomcat, and for my money, Pandolfo steals the show in these abrasive yet cartoonish scenes with a mixture of Dirk Bogarde-esque, archer-than-a-flying-buttress camp and nostril-flaring sarcasm, mock-macho flailing and quickfire sparring that made him for me an unlikely yet convincing heir to the throne of the late, great Rik Mayall at his most louche and dissolute.
Sexy, campy, bitchy, glamorous and hilarious, with not a well-shod foot put wrong, Private Lives is a triumphant directorial debut for the Torch Theatre Company’s Chesley Gillard and another impressive production feat for the cast and crew of the Torch. Oh so gay!
Private Lives plays at Torch Theatre until Saturday 21st October, more information and tickets are available from the theatre website.