First published in The Times, Tuesday June 28 2022
The cocktails are waiting on the terrace, the Duke of Westminster’s yacht is moored in the harbour at Deauville, and in the near distance a band is playing Someday I’ll Find You. We are unmistakably in Noël Coward’s sophisticated, world-weary milieu, and though all appears calm on the polished surface of Ken Harrison’s elegantly simple set, fireworks are about to go off.
The auditorium at Pitlochry is familiar with Coward’s work, and Private Lives, with its sleek symmetry, and pungent mix of romance, despair, and self-loathing, is perhaps the most recognisable of all his comedies. A palpable air of anticipation descends on the room, as we await the chance encounter between Elyot (Tom Richardson) and Amanda (Amelia Donkor), the original couple who can’t live with or without each other, now married to other people, and honeymooning next door to each other.
Their unexpected reunion is especially nicely handled in the opening act of Amy Liptrott’s production, thanks to a pair of fine, layered performances from Richardson and Donkor. In the company of their new spouses – the wide-eyed Sybil (Nalân Burgess), and humourless Victor (Marc Small) – both Elyot and Amanda appear diminished, restless, and jaded. Meeting again, they become reanimated, gearing up for a habitual battle of words that every so often melts into heartfelt emotion.
Although both actors are happy in the Cowardian modes of archness and ennui, there are also plenty of unaffectedly moving moments, the intensity of their relationship amplified by the staging, with Harrison’s semi-circular set bulging out towards the audience, and creating a lovely sense of intimacy with the action.
Some of these nuances are sadly lost enroute to the plush Paris apartment where the fugitive Elyot and Amanda are bunkered down for Act Two. The pace meanders, petulance occasionally substitutes for depth of feeling, and the actors fleetingly recapture the simmering passion of the opener. Even the stand-up fight that results in ripped cushions, feathers flying, feels becalmed.
There is pleasure nonetheless in the broad comedy generated by Sybil and Victor’s arrival on the scene, while Deirdre Davis almost steals the show as Amanda’s maid, Louise. Onstage for minutes, and with a handful of lines, her parting glance tells you everything you need to know about her thinly veiled disdain for the leisure class.
Box office: 01796 484626, to Sep 30. Pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com