It is clear from Kim Cattrall’s entrance onstage in Private Lives that the audience is in for a smart, sensual treat. Striding onto a balcony clad in nothing but a fluffy white bath towel, tan, toned and smiling, we are assured that, without a doubt, that this is going to be one sexy comedy.
Directed by Richard Eyres, Noel Coward’s 1929 comedy of manners introduces us to Amanda and Elyot, a divorced couple who reunite while honeymooning in France with their respective new spouses. The two couples find they have adjoining balconies at their hotel and the ex-husband and wife quickly discover that sparks still fly between them. They promptly abandon their new spouses, flee to Paris together, and all sorts of mayhem ensues.
An amusing look at 1930s sophistication, Private Lives is an ornately worded and staged show, and with Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross starring as Amanda and Elyot, that sophistication is personified onstage with grace and humor. Cattrall, known for her role as the sexually adventurous Samantha Jones on the HBO series Sex and the City, reveals herself to be a skilled and capable comedic actress onstage. Handling Amanda’s British accent with ease, she brings an amusing vulnerability to Amanda’s hyperbole and occasional hysteria. The expression on her face when she first recognizes Elyot on the balcony is hilarious, and the antics she engages in to cause him to notice her are priceless.
Handsome and debonair, Paul Gross as Elyot is a wonderful match onstage for Cattrall. His cool ease onstage – and his classic tuxedo costume – reminds one of Cary Grant’s film roles from the 1950s and 60s. He speaks Coward’s rapid-fire dialogue with ease, and he and Cattrall share a palpable sexual chemistry. From their first onstage kiss to the sparring they share in the second and third acts, it is easy to see why the two were so drawn to each other – and why they divorced before reuniting. When the duo dance together in Act Two, they move with a comfortable and sexual ease that is enviable. The “cosmic thingummies”, to borrow Amanda’s term, between them are easy to understand when watching them together.
Amanda and Elyot’s rejected spouses are played by Simon Paisley Day as Victor and Anna Madeley as Sybil. As Victor, Day is deliciously entertaining as a stuffed-shirt, upright British man – in other words, the opposite of Elyot. Watching him and Cattrall, one can see that Amanda really did try to love him. Madeley does not fare quite so well as Sybil, the innocent, blushing English rose that Elyot weds only a few months after meeting her. Her performance, while highly amusing, borders on shrill and hysterical, and it is only in the last moments of the show that we see how funny the actress can be. Caroline Lena Olsson rounds off the cast as a housekeeper of infinite discretion.
Sadly, the sets onstage do not depict the grace and ease that the cast personifies. Designed by Rob Howell, they do not do the play justice. The balconies of the first scene are lush and lovely, but the Parisian flat where Amanda and Elyot hole up together is jarring and unsettling. Designed in art moderne style, with high ceilings and ovals everywhere you glance, it looks – inexplicably – like a fish bowl and does not seem to symbolize anything from the script.
It is clear that Coward, who penned the song “I Am No Good at Love,” does not have a high opinion of marriage. Private Lives is highly amusing, but there are a few moments in the show that border on disturbing rather than entertaining. Instead, he seems to believe that all relationships are dysfunctional in one way or another and perhaps we need to simply seek the person we are the least dysfunctional with. Perhaps that was what he intended to say with this play. After all, that very same message was echoed on Sex and the City in Season Two.