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Private Lives at Manchester Royal Exchange

Published by: Caroline May on 2nd Mar 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May

There’s never a shortage of Noel Coward revivals at The Royal Exchange, but after a string of Hay Fevers and Blithe Spirits along comes Michael Buffong’s first-rate production of Private Lives which is in another class altogether.

This is probably due to the peerless cast. Even on paper the thought of Exchange favourite Simon Robson playing opposite an actress as fabulous as Imogen Stubbs is enough to make any theatre-goer’s mouth water. On a purely technical level, their natural ease with this style of writing enables them to create three-dimensional characters who have meaningful conversations, rather than paper-thin caricatures exchanging brittle one-liners. Suddenly the depths of Coward’s comedy are exposed, and the actors’ pleasure in playing with the language is evident.

As well as mastering their own roles, Messrs Robson and Stubbs forge a fantastic stage partnership. Imogen Stubbs’s Amanda is flirtatious, flighty and funny, and makes this often appalling character actually very appealing. Simon Robson’s patrician Elyot is far more serious and stolid, yet this works well against the mercurial Amanda. Their scenes together in the Paris flat are a tour-de-force, and the disparity in their sizes spices up the rampant physicality of their performances. Thanks to choreographer Coral Messam and fight director Kate Waters the no-holds-barred bouts of fisticuffs and fornication are almost balletic. And I’ll never forget the beautiful interlude at the piano where Elyot seduces Amanda, and the whole audience along with her.

Joanna Page, who has proved her comedy chops over three series of Gavin and Stacey but who is almost unrecognisable here in a peroxide wig and frumpy suit, chivvies up the frequently thankless role of Sibyl; and Clive Hayward gives us a cowardly blustering Victor, who poses as a knight in shining armour but is more concerned with righting the furniture than righting wrongs. Even Rose Johnson as the disdainful French maid turns her brief appearance into a brilliant cameo of clowning and contempt.

Designer Ellen Cairns reinterprets the hotel balcony of act 1 as a box-hedged terrace which facilitates some of the funniest eavesdropping scenes since Much Ado About Nothing, and the sequence of negligees, gowns and playsuits she dreams up for Amanda are to die for.

After last year’s award-winning take on A Raisin in the Sun, director Michael Buffong triumphs yet again. Frankly this production has “west end transfer” written all over it - get your tickets while you can.

Private Lives

Prices £9-£30

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30, Sat @ 4pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833






is on until Saturday 9 April



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