Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Playhouse: Private Lives (Belvoir)

I've been looking forward all year to this: Noel Coward, the Tobies Schmitz & Truslove, a smart modern perspective from the Belvoir team - what's not to love?  I thoroughly enjoyed this - and yet I'm not quite persuaded they entirely pulled it off.

Toby Schmitz is an outstanding Elyot - attractive, charming and underneath it, a deeply awful human being. Zahra Newman, cast against type, didn't totally convince me as Amanda until about two-thirds in when a costume change transformed her at last into the cool femme fatale of Coward's original vision. She seems too tomboyish to be the woman the dialogue is describing (and the jokes about getting a tan don't sit comfortably).

Eloise Mignon, on the other hand, is cast utterly to type as the seemingly insubstantial Sybil, and so is man-of-the-moment Toby Truslove as stolid Victor. Truslove seems to have injured himself, appearing throughout with a leg-brace and cane, and I was impressed by the way in which this was used to actually enhance his character and actions; in fact it worked so neatly that I wasn't sure it was a real injury until he hobbled on for curtain call (and I turned up this photo from backstage at Belvoir). And there's some lovely schtick from Mish Grigor as the French Maid of nobody's fantasies.

Schmitz's fabulous Benedick in Bell's production of Much Ado About Nothing last year showed that he excels at divesting a classic role of its baggage and giving it a fresh and contemporary inflection. In this production, director Ralph Myers has done a stellar job in eliciting the same from the whole cast - but there are still a few places where Coward's language is just too affected or dated to be delivered convincingly in a present-day voice. On the whole, though, there's almost no echo of the usual Round the Horne Fiona & Charles stuff - it's almost a reinterpretation, and without the veneer of Fraffly, Elyot and Amanda recover their edge (and nastiness).

It's very, very funny stuff. But there are a number of things that in my view did not work well, and one of them was a terrible set. It's a stark white, inexpensive looking hotel corridor, featuring two numbered doors and a lift.  (A hall table would have come in very useful.) Even leaving aside the question of why these four clearly moneyed and self-indulgent quasi-aristos are apparently honeymooning at the Queanbeyan Formule 1, why are they drinking their cocktails and squabbling in the hotel corridor? Yes, the convention of adjoining balconies might be annoyingly trope-ish, but it does actually work (beautifully, for example, in the Frasier homage episode Adventures in Paradise). This design choice smacks of heaving out the baby with the bathwater, and it isn't helped by oddly dim and inconsistent lighting. Nor is it improved in the second act, when instead of Amanda's apartment being the usual art deco dream, she and Elyot inexplicably haul a mattress into the cheap white living room and flop it down in front of the now equally inexplicable lift.  

The musical choices are wildly varied, and entertaining, but also not entirely a comfortable fit. A scene where Amanda and Elyot hurl themselves into an air-performance of Phil Collins is great fun to watch, but I found it discordant in the context of the play. On the other hand, the lovely Some Day I'll Find You, which Coward wrote especially for this play, was sadly conspicuous by its absence.

These snipings are, of course, quite trivial - but then so, often, was Coward. In any event they should not deter you from a very enjoyable production, especially as Schmitz spends most of it in a terry-towelling robe. Recommended.

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