Monday, 24 June 2013

Private Lives


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

12 comments:

  1. AnonymousJune 24, 2013

    Delightful post, again!
    *
    That's why I always bypass the Ladies Queue and march insouciantly towards the Gents. But perhaps that is Utterly Not Done in the UK?

    Blogless Andrea

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    Replies
    1. Utterly, Uttlerly, Utterly Not Done. There would be questions asked in Parliament.

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  2. AnonymousJune 24, 2013

    in the words of Star Trek

    to boldly go ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Back on the naughty step, MrM.

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  3. It's hard to imagine that the words "a dignified and unobjectionable manner" - coming from Noel Coward - would be taken at face value!

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    Replies
    1. Apparently the Bishop of London told the Lord Chamberlain "I have just had two girls to dinner, whom I know very well, and they...tell me that the account of'Private Lives' was exaggerated...no further steps should be taken". (quote from programme notes)

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  4. I stopped reading when I read the words 'Toby Stephens'. I got, um, distracted.

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    Replies
    1. Yes - I agree - he was a revelation in Poirot and the case of the Five Little Pigs.

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  5. Is thatthe Noel Coward play with the famous line about Norfolk being very flat? I have heard

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    Replies
    1. Elyot: I met her on a house party in Norfolk.
      Amanda: Very flat, Norfolk.
      Elyot: There's no need to be unpleasant.
      Amanda: That was no reflection on her, unless of course she made it flatter.

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  6. Oops. I have heard snippets of Noel Coward himself saying that line several times in my life and it always makes me giggle. And really, it's not that hilarious a line. Must be in the delivery.

    Also, Toby Stephens. Mmmm.

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  7. Oh Toby Stephens and Noel Coward - elegance dahling at its most elegantly louche.
    My favourite London theatre at the moment is St Martin's; tiny, cramped with a deadly stair down to the ladies and a small booth in the foyer selling wine gums etc. it's the perfect venue for The Mousetrap; like stepping back in time. Although not too comfortable if you're over 6 foot with long legs I've just been reminded.
    Another fab post Alice xx

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