Coward’s Way : Private Lives – The Gielgud – Review

The circumstances of Noel Coward writing “Private Lives” are often dragged out of someone’s anecdotal storage area to terrify and intimidate aspiring writers.  4 days!  They will tell you about this.  He wrote this in 4 days!  And yes, Noel Coward did write “Private Lives” in 4 days, but that doesn’t include the two weeks he spent recuperating from influenza in Shanghai where he, through a haze of painkillers and swift martinis, no doubt, dreamed up the initial characters and percolating the plot prior to actually starting writing.

Nevertheless, “Private Lives” remains a remarkable feat; a sobering lash of industrious creativity to those of us still living in the corners of fog-addled, lazy, Nescafe minds at half past one on a Tuesday off.  We who have done nothing, we lazy dogs, are always reminded, painfully, of the Noel Coward 4-days-play-writing-a-thon, just to push the writerly self-hatred a little further into our bones.  Of course, it has to be remembered that Noel Coward had nothing else to do.  He had no other job than being Noel Coward (practically full time) and writing plays and letters, in order to ensure that he too would have a name that would become embalmed in the English language as an adjective (Cowardesque), one of the few writers to do so (Dickensian, Ortonesque, Rabelaisian, Byronic, Pinteresque, Shakespearean etc). But what a job to have.  And how he did it.

I love “Private Lives”.  I first read it when I was 14 and thought it instantly, fabulously, cruelly divine.  It is cruel, in as much as two people get their marriages destroyed in a succinct 1 hour 55 minutes, but it is a beautifully funny piece of work.  Coward’s world is a monied one – it seems almost as a second thought that Amanda suddenly remembers “I’ve got a flat in Paris!”  almost as if she had forgotten she ever had one.  Elyot, clearly another one with bottomless pockets, has just got back from going all around the world to recover from a broken heart, lashed to pieces by his former wife :

“I went around the world you know, after…”

“Yes, yes.  I know.  How was it?”

“The world?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, highly enjoyable.”

This play is a lashing of cosmopolitan sophistication that, to audiences in 1930 must have been almost incomprehensibly glamourous.  The sheer grandeur of divorce (then a rare, expensive habit of the super rich, like pure cocaine) was seductively exotic.  Elyot and Amanda, previously existing in a sort of fuck or fight marriage, bump into each other in Deauville whilst on second honeymoons with other people.  And really, that is sort of it.  Only about two other things happen under the category PLOT in Mr Coward’s, delicately-papered dramatic notebook.  Everything else is character, because of course the eternal theatrical algebra is well-shaped character + brilliant dialogue = plot.  All that happens is the characters, and it happens beautifully.

This production has transferred in from the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, a strangely claustrophobic theatre in the round which I once worked in twelve years ago and which sits like a squat, ugly sister to the grander Chichester (pron.  Chic-Hester) Festival Theatre next door.  Coward’s play has a simple set, but only simple in that utterly elegant, consciously glorious Coward way.  Like Howard’s Way, there are one or two boats, but they only appear in the middle distance over and above the audience’s heads.  One yacht turns up, which is probably that, comments Elyot, of the Duke of Westminster because – well, it always is.  This expresses the jaded ennui that permeates this play like vermouth cloudily falling into Smirnoff.    This is a knowing play ; these characters know about casinos, travel, vintners, sexual relationships and how to address a French waiter.  So essential is sex to this play that if the chemistry between Elyot and Amanda falls even an atom short, the play is dead.

Anna Chancellor brings a racehorse-like vivacity to the somewhat irrational, Amanda, who labels herself always ‘jagged with sophistication’.  Chancellor recently said in an interview that she doesn’t consider herself a great actress, and that if the play is terrific then the actors will be too.  Well, she has to start to consider herself a great actress and give herself a break, because she is stupendous as Amanda.  She has that frightful combination of attraction curdling with fatal desire and – importantly – being an intelligent actress – she creates an intelligent Amanda who you can easily believe, would speak as Coward writes.   Toby Stephens is an odd Elyot – its slightly troubling that he stands half a head shorter than both female characters (his first wife and his second) and although physically he doesn’t seem to quite fit the mark for how Elyot should appear, he has great comic flair and the audience laughed their loudest for him. Yet you never quite understand why Amanda is so utterly drawn to him, and you never quite find yourself able to imagine them having thrilling sex.    There is something of the petulant schoolboy about him that suggests that Amanda would eat him for breakfast rather than repeatedly want to shag him in Parisian apartments.  Nevertheless, their infamous second Act is carried off with rambunctious flair and a soupcon of the necessary emotional intensity and violence.   This was the Act that the Lord Chancellor forced Coward to censor in various parts; not just because two pyjama-clad lunatics rolling post-coitally around a bachelorette pad was considered beyond the pale but rather because it showed two people, who were married to other people, kissing each other.  The fact these two people had also been married to each other didn’t mean much to the Lord C.  It was still censored.  Oddly, the protestations of  atheism didn’t bat an eyelid, nor Elyot’s wonderfully cheeky aside that he wishes for a moment that he was Catholic, if only because “it would be nice to think they’d back us up” in the face of their three day shag fest, as, not recognising divorce, only the Catholic Church would consider them still married.

The supporting roles are fleshed out a little more than normally, here.  Sybil and Victor, so often relegated to the second rank characters in this play, are brilliant – Victor is particularly sympathetic in his dealing with the woeful, unconscionable Amanda.  Sybil too, her of the famous “Don’t quibble, Sybil!” has pulled half the audience on to her side by halfway through the third Act.  This third Act is beautifully staged, and where the relationship between Elyot and Amanda reaches a full romantic credibility.

It is unnecessary in a two hour play to have an interval at all.  But here they do, and the production is weaker for it.   The pace, so rapturously ranked up during the Second Act, takes an age to get itself going again, thanks to a forgetful comedy old French maid turn that the play could do without.  When you also realise the second half of the play is only 25 minutes long you wonder why Jonathan Kent’s production bothered with an interval at all, but I presume theatres, West End or regional, depend heavily on III (Ice cream Interval Income) and the purchase of the illustrious souvenir programme by matinee matrons in Debenhams two pieces.

I hope I haven’t been too hard on this production here – reading back over this I wonder if I have.  The truth is this a blindingly good use of two hours of your time.  It’s a brilliant piece, well-paced, stylish and grittily sophisticated.  It’s the kind of play that would bear up well to a second, third or even fourth viewing, and despite the Amandas and Elyots that have gone before, Stephens and Chancellor do fabulously well here.

Do return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we will see you on Thursday 1st August!  Many thanks.

Review – Wembley Stadium – Robbie Williams

I’m titling this review “Wembley Stadium” first, then “Robbie Williams” second, which is not what I usually do.  But then if you go to Wembley Stadium you go to see Wembley Stadium.  The slightly tubby chap in the diamante morning coat is only a secondary affectation of the evening, flanked by occasional jets of fire, balloons and large screens that show the new Williams teeth in all their chomping glory.  Robbie Williams was the size of half of my little finger.  I really do mean that – I am not referring to the size of anything else.  From the vaulted viewpoint at Club Wembley I could have been looking at a child’s toy, lingering over his falsetto notes and gleefully jumping on stage and naughtily spitting “I’m Robbie Fucking Williams”, as if we weren’t entirely sure what we had tickets for.

Robert Williams likes to sing.  I say this because I’m convinced that not many performers who have been singing for two decades actually like to do it, and if I’d been forced to do the same job for 20 years, I’d be resentful of it too.  But Robert Williams likes to sing – loves to sing, as is evidenced here and, I’ll bet, loves to sing more than flirt tritely with the audience and pretend to eat the edible bra of some choreographed woman who apparently popped up from the audience and then lure her into a bed with a red, silk, Take That monogrammed duvet (more of that later).  His voice is in very very fine fettle.  He has a particularly gorgeous voice. Away on what appeared to my eyes to be a tiny, aspirin sized stage, he vaulted and lurched and strutted about for nearly two hours.  He even told a couple of jokes.  But he looks back too much “Ten years ago today was Knebworth!”  whilst relying too heavily on the machinations of stage props.  Many of his stage props were large models of his own head, which he would then climb into and pop out of the top of, like a children’s party entertainer.  At one point he dropped his microphone from the top of one of his large heads, narrowly missing concussing an audience member.

When he wasn’t inside his enormous head, he was creating new raps to Minnie the Moocher: “I am a blokey from Stokey / A little bit tubby and a little bit cokey….”  But then the rap started banging on about the “3 lions” and how much we should all love them, and I’m afraid it was a repeat of that disastrous section in the Take That Wembley Stadium concerts of 2011 when our Robert went a bit UKIP and demanded we all stand up to sing the National Anthem.  I’m not saying that singing the National Anthem isn’t a rousing thing to do of a summer’s evening, but it sat very badly between “Relight my Fire” and “Babe”.

We had a lovely rendition of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” before I went out in search for white wine with lots of ice cubes.  A couple were brandishing hot dogs at each other in the food and drink zone:  “But I TOLD you that my car was going.  to.  get.  towed.  WHAT did you THINK I would do?! I hate this I hate this.”   The two of them were facing off against each other like cross spaniels in matching Robbie Williams official loungewear.  At the plastic bar with the plastic people and the plastic glasses they had run out of ice.  I was sent to another bar, which was a long walk away, probably West Harrow.  I heard the seasons change.  When I got back into the stadium, Robert Williams was attempting to serenade the woman I mentioned at the start of the blog entry, who was enticingly wearing an edible bikini.  Much raucous whoops and cheers accompanied Williams’s shabby attempts to eat it whilst trying to sing “Everything Changes” to her.  She responded by doing the same choreography as him at the same time, including ducking down with a risible wink underneath the ‘Take That’ monogrammed duvet.  The whole episode was meant to be cheeky, tawdry, a little bit of end of the pier tomfoolery.  Instead it came across as stale, un sexy, over-rehearsed and overwhelmingly clinical.

I am not saying I was let down – his backing band (which he forgot to thank, thanking only his support act, Olly Murs) were a sharp, fantastic selection of musicians, and “Kids” had us all jumping in our seats.  An acoustic version of “Millenium” was particularly poignant.  And this is the thing: When it’s just Robbie Williams, singing in front of a hefty selection of drunk women swaying whilst eating Maltesers, with nothing accompanying him but the strings of his own acoustic guitar, you are reminded what a vocal gift he has.  But the strange physics of Wembley Stadium dictates that the more fluff and crap you have on the stage, the smaller the area of gravity that surrounds it.  When the stage was full of high wires, balloons released intermittently as if to keep children happy, fireworks and makeshift beds, the attention wandered.  There was no focus – in fact, at one point, a fight broke out on the floor of the stadium between one over-excited concert goer and another.  It was so interesting that for a time most people watched that.  It was just as enjoyable a spectacle as the main event.   But when Robbie Williams sings “Angels” and ramps up the audience until they are singing it a cappella back at him, he truly commands a huge stadium such as this, with expertise, showmanship and deft technical ability.

Of course, he didn’t sing his other hit “Engels”, a hymn to the father of Marxism.  “And through it Allllll,  she offers me unionization, a polemic on economic exploitation whether I’m right or wrong…”  but you can’t have it all, I suppose.

After his encore, he sat on the edge of the stage and sang another version of “Angels” without his band.  Alone and singing, with half of the stadium lights turned down, he ramped up the audience to encourage them to join in with him.  People starting singing as they filed out.  Eventually his voice faded and he just watched everyone walk out singing his song in the darkness.  I know it was an end rather more of a whimper than a bang but it was beautifully done.  Next time, Mr Williams, less slap and tickle and props and spiel, just have the faith to know you only have to stand there and sing.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, usually.  But I will be updating next week at some stage with a theatre review.  Oh, and Robbie Williams didn’t really sing a song called “Engels”.  That was One Direction.  Thank you.  The London Bluebird.