If you were only ever going to one show in the West End you could do worse than 'Private Lives' which has just opened at the Gielgud. It is a little jewel box of a theatre, gold embellishments on white plaster, filled with photos of Gielgud in his prime. There are plush chairs, velvet curtains and little doors to boxes in strange angles of the stairs to the stalls, the foyer sells those boxes of fruit pastels that you never see anywhere but in theatre foyers and the queue for the Ladies does not appear to get any shorter. It is the authentic theatre experience.
'Private Lives' was written by Noël Coward with Gertrude Lawrence in mind and he played opposite her in the original 1930 production. It is hard to believe that Coward managed to convince the official censor, the Lord Chamberlain's office, that the play would be produced in 'a dignified and unobjectionable manner' when you look at these photographs and see the sexual tension between the two characters. This revival of 'Private Lives' stars Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor who convey a restless energy as they are alternately drawn to and then repelled by each other.
Noël Coward quoted the critics describing the play as 'tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring'. It is all of those things but it is also puzzling. Somerset Maugham was the great rival of Coward in the theatrelands of the 1920s and his tempestuous marriage to the glamorous Syrie had just come to an end in 1929. None of the commentaries about 'Private Lives' refer to this as inspiration for the plot and yet Noël Coward was a loyal friend of Syrie Maugham, commissioning her to decorate his various home. It is intriguing to note that Syrie Maugham's favourite designer, Molyneux, was also the designer for Gertrude Lawrence's exquisite fish tail satin evening dress in the 1930 production. Coward was contemptuous of analysis of his plays but it is fun to speculate and there is an unmistakable resemblance between Gerald Haxton, Somerset Maugham's lover, and the character of Victor as played by Laurence Olivier so perhaps the title itself is a sly reference to Maugham's homosexuality.
Gertrude Lawrence in Syrie Maugham's Kings Road shop