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Private Lives. Caxton Theatre, Grimsby, March 5th - 12th 2022.

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Private Lives

Noel Coward

Caxton Theatre Grimsby

March 5th – 12th 2022

Cathy Bennett-Ryan treated Review Culture to an early peak at her new production of the Noel Coward classic Private Lives this week. This perennial classic has been seen on stage, screen and film such is its appeal. It has even been performed at the Caxton Theatre before too. It is a familiar, comfortable comedy of manners. The former Caxton Players' President, Patricia Hodge, even performed in a 2021 production. Bennett-Ryan is faithful to the style and tone of the play and creates a comic production that will enchant audiences when it opens on March 5th.

The story revolves around two sets of honeymooners, celebrating their nuptials in France and opens on two adjoining balconies. Elyot Chase and his young bride, Sybil enjoy the splendour of their view though Sybil’s girlish inquisitiveness causes problems as she probes into the circumstances of Elyot’s first honeymoon with his ex-wife Amanda. As they re-enter their rooms, the couple next door emerge onto their balcony. Victor Prynne and his new bride, Amanda. We soon realise that this blushing bride is in fact Elyot’s first wife. The priggish Victor inadvertently provokes an argument as he enquires about Amanda’s prior marriage. They too return to their quarters.

The worst possible scenario unfolds as the former husband and wife encounter each other on their respective balconies and cause blazing rows with their current spouses as each seeks to flee their hotel for Paris. When nothing comes of such a row the spouses leave the former couple to rue their fate. It is then that their romance is rekindled, and the story really begins…

Byron Young plays the raffish, and promiscuous Elyot Chase. A tall, elegant figure, he presents an unconventional figure for the period but that is part of his charm. The energy and wit he brings to the role are wonderful. This is a man with no moral compass driven by his desires, whose reckless abandon will always get him and those in his orbit, into trouble. With a cut-glass accent and clipped tones, it would be easy to present a stereotypical Elyot, but Young succeeds in making him an incorrigible rogue. His passion and anger drive him in equal measure to great comic effect. I was reminded of a cross between Nigel Havers and Robert Bathurst as the action unfolded.

His new bride, with a prim and proper exterior that belies a rather fiery little minx, is played by Gemma Dodds. Once again, it is easy to only see Sybil as a one-dimensional character, but Dodds imbues her with heart and passion that drives her in her pursuit of her husband. After all, we have to understand what would drive such a playboy as Elyot to fall for a somewhat drippy Sybil otherwise. Far from delivering a one-note performance Dodds is capable of painting a picture of a woman wronged but not willing to accept that she could become a woman scorned. As she joins forces with Victor, we see Sybil willing to claim what is rightfully hers and to fight for it.

New to the Caxton Players is the wonderful Christine Chen, who plays Amanda Prynne as an American socialite with morals to match her ex-husband and the manipulative edge of a woman used to getting her own way. Seeming to have chosen a more sedate path by marrying Victor, Amanda finds herself drawn like a moth to a flame by Elyot’s rakish allure. Chen manages to convince the audience that she would be a woman worth deserting a new bride for with her flippant bon viveur attitude and firecracker energy. Amanda enjoys playing up to the melodrama of every situation and checking out of the corner of her eye if it is working, manipulates those around her with aplomb. Elyot and Amanda were clearly an unconventional, free-spirited couple with attitudes perhaps ahead of their time. Chen plays the role wonderfully and is a welcome addition to the Caxton Players. I hope to see her in future productions.

Then there is Victor. Good old, reliable Victor. The upright, uptight rather stuffy new husband played by Jack Scott. It is a thankless task playing the boring husband, but Scott does extremely well. His manner and bearing suggest an upbringing in which he would have been coached in manners and proper behaviour and it is his job to provide the reason for Amanda’s eye to stray. Had it not been back to her former beau, no doubt it would have been someone else. Amanda would never be happy with a man as dull as Victor despite his attractiveness and bearing. When challenging Elyot to a fight, Scott’s comic timing comes to the fore and excels. It is a pleasure to see him return to the stage in this production.

Finally, the cast is rounded out by Louise – the maid. Marie Barker delivers a scene-stealing performance as the curmudgeonly French maid who appears in Act 3 and despairs at the stupidity of the imbecilic English (and American) occupants of the apartment in Paris. Her performance which is entirely in mumbled, muffled French is somehow reminiscent of Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall and is a delight as she seeks to do her job whilst coping with the idiotic foreigners. A wonderful cameo executed brilliantly.

The play is presented in three acts as mentioned above, something the audience should be aware of as there is an interval after Act 1 but not between Acts 2 and 3. Thus the audience should be warned to remain seated. It does mean that the first part of the show ends rather sooner than would be usual at the Caxton Theatre but nevertheless is necessary in order to execute the set change from adjoining balconies to a wonderful, gaudy, art deco apartment replete with a baby grand. The production has wonderful energy and will only get better with an audience responding to the humour of the piece. It is not often that a play produced locally is ready for an audience quite as soon as this production and credit must be given to the entire team on and back-stage.

Bennet-Ryan’s direction is pinpoint accurate, she clearly understands the world she presents on stage, and I am certain that audiences will fall in love with the morally bankrupt central characters and their unforgivably bad behaviour. Private Lives opens on Saturday 5th March and runs for one week.

Andy Evans – 26 February 2022

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