Noel Coward’s Private Lives, for all it’s sharp wit, agreeable linguistic indulgences, class and style, is a trivial play, from an era in which trivial plays were revered and, most probably, needed. Coward pretty much admitted so, in any case, particularly in the face of serious-minded scholars, who saw fit to indulge in the absurd endeavour of seeking to apply various literary theories to his plays. Of one, he inimitably remarked: “Many years ago an earnest young man wrote a book about my plays. It was very intelligent and absolute rubbish.” And, after all, Coward sketched out the play in a couple of weeks, when he had the flu, and wrote it in four days.

To revive what’s popularly regarded as a British classic from the ’30s, with the now-quaint expressions with which it’s strewn is, essentially, on paper, a somewhat foolhardy exercise. But in refusing to bow to such implicit cautions, director Ralph Myers has, in one three-act play, firmly endorsed the wisdom of renewing his contract as artistic director of Belvoir. This is almost certainly his best work to date.

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I’ve often criticised adoption of accents in foreign plays, especially when those accents prove to be less than convincing, or where some of the cast have ’em and others don’t. I have to confess, however, this was one play which was hard to imagine without the original cadence which is really Coward’s, and his alone. (Mind you, at the time of it first production, critics wondered if the play had legs, as they couldn’t imagine it going over without the man himself in the cast.) But again Myers has had the cojones to show the way, affording actors the freedom to use their own voices. Interestingly, without put-on affectations, one starts to pay closer attention to the individual mannerisms of each, which almost amounts to the same thing.

Another source of skepticism, going in, arose from reading the cast and crew list. The usual Belvoir suspects. The same names, it has to be said, keep cropping up, again and again. While, in broader philosophical terms, I’ve something of a problem with this incestuousness, which connotes laziness and a lack of imagination, it just so happens that, on this occasion, there couldn’t really have been better men or women for the job than those chosen. Whether the result is accident, or design, is indeterminable. I suspect a happy nexus of both.

Myers has made other brave decisions. He’s thrown out the song Coward wrote specifically for this play, for example. Presumably because none of these actors can sing and because its character would be too absurd and anachronistic. His set is a breath of fresh air, doing away with palms, juliets, effete cigarette-holders and like, in deference to a Novotel aesthetic: stark white and clean, impersonal, prefab lines. You could easily be in high-rise your-star in Surfers, were it not for the references to Paris (which I might’ve changed, but then you’d have to throw away the comedy of the surly French maid, which Myers and co have milked). Similarly, you won’t see any smoking jackets or silk robes. Little other than ubiquitous terry-towelling (at least for Elyot), like the hats of old, worn to the beach or to mow the lawn. In this, Alice Babidge is on exactly the same page as her director. And so is lighting designer Damian Cooper, keeping it light, bright and simple, like Woolies or Maccas.

Stefan Gregory is credited as composer, but I can’t remember any composition, other than Glen Miller’s, piped over the hotel PA, or Phil Collins’ and one or two others’, played on a record-player by the eloped Elyot and Amanda. But his sound design plays a big part: scratched records (I’d feel a whole lot better if no vinyl were harmed in the making of this play); the incessant repetition of Moonlight Serenade, around which Coward penned a joke.

As maid, Louise, Mish Grigor gratifies all our preferred stereotypes about the French. She’s uncommunicative, unhelpful, rude, arrogant, intimidating and superior. As a consequence, she’s also hilarious, slamming down furniture; begrudgingly attending Amanda’s every whim, without in the slightest concealing her disdain.

Eloise Mignon is at a turning-point in her career where, perhaps, she risks being typecast. Then again, many more famous actors have built whole careers on their character roles and she does shrieking, dizzy young women so very well. This isn’t to damn her with faint praise, but to endorse her skills for such roles. Mind you, it would be interesting to see her tackle something more substantial, which relies on a director to give her the chance. Here, she makes for a cookie-cut Sibyl. Annoying as hell; but with heart of gold.

Zahra Newman certainly turns the tables on the casting assumptions one might make for Amanda. Not for Myers or her the reserve of the Coward conception. She’s a modern woman: strong; strident; self-assured; go-getting; assertively sexy. Rubbing up against Toby Schmitz, there’s an odd couple feel about them that’s completely and delightfully relative to the plot. The other meat in this club sandwich is, of course, Victor, Amanda’s hapless, jilted hubby, for whom Toby Truslove has set a whole new comic high-water mark.

The beauty and genius of this casting is that these are all, to my mind, actors that have distinctive personal styles; not the blank canvas kind onto which any face can be painted, but the kind who bring a bit (or a lot) of themselves to each and every role. With this play and, especially, this production, they get to do that without compunction, censorship, embarrassment or self-consciousness: I imagine they’re really enjoying themselves and finding the experience very liberating. All are very well-equipped to lend a broadly (as against merely broad) Aussie flavour to a terribly British play while, if anything, fortifying the comic potential. The two Tobys (Tobies?) are particularly enjoyable.

With Private Lives, Myers has really pulled a very funny, successful, likeable, unpretentious rabbit out of his terry-towelling hat, adding a few light touches of his own. Don’t quibble, Sibyl!

The details: Private Lives play Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre until November 11. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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