The world premiere of Private Lives by Noel Coward took place at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, on 18 August, 1930. The cast included Laurence Olivier, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward himself. He was in his prime, acknowledged as the highest earning author, a genius writer of plays, songs, music, stories, screenplays, as well as a talented actor and director.
It is fitting indeed that that this touring production of a new adaptation of Coward’s final play, (1967) should come to the King’s.
Based on a short story, Star Quality, the rather slim plot revolves around the casting, rehearsals and artistic conflicts of a new play “Dark Heritage” as a play within a play. Coward’s world of theatre was his genteel between-the-wars drawing room comedies about romance, marriage and relationships. By the 1950s and 60s, he was competing with the social realism of Pinter and Osborne.
The background to the play can be seen as a personal, satirical attack on the fashionable new wave drama, in which Ray Malcolm, the opinionated director is based on himself, and the temperamental leading lady, Lorraine Barrie is modelled on Gertrude Lawrence, whom Noel admired and co-starred but described as “the least intelligent, most conceited and most tiresome bitch, I have ever encountered”.
It’s a battle of wits, wills and egos between Ray, Lorraine and the novice playwright, Bryan Snow, as we observe the whole process of producing the play from first read through by the cast to opening night.
The opening scene shows the backstage of a theatre, with its bare brick walls, ladders, costumes and props. With quick movement of furniture, the action then moves seamlessly between Lorraine’s drawing room, an Italian restaurant, rehearsal room and the play’s stage set.
Amanda Donohoe plays Lorraine, the self-obsessed West End diva, with sexual charm and sly ruthlessness. Her first elegant appearance is in orange silk pyjamas, clutching her lap dog, as she serves China tea and scones while spouting some cracking Cowardly one liners, - “There is nothing, in the world, more divine than scrambled eggs!” - as she flirts with the star- struck Bryan, perched nervously on the sofa.
Yes, it is all rather a lighthearted farce, but beneath the froth there’s a darker tone about ageing and the problems with old fashioned drama in post war culture. As Noel commented, "If a playwright wishes to express a political or moral opinion or a philosophy, he must be a good enough craftsman to do it with so much spice of entertainment in it that the public get the message without being aware of it."
Several key performances sparkle with OTT characterisation: the long suffering dresser and maid, Nora, describing how Lorraine presents Afternoon Tea like a star turn; Ray’s adorably camp assistant Tony, brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Houghton, as he sashays about in his sarong, trying to seduce the innocent Bryan. And not forgetting a delightful hammed up scene from the melodramatic “Dark Heritage.”
The period mood and style is spot on - the dapper suits, fur coats, handbags, hair styles, endless cigarettes, languid, “luvvie” mannerisms and comic timing. With cutting remarks like “she has more lines on her forehead than in the script” it is proof indeed that the wit and language of Noel Coward still has a talent to amuse.
Three stars for the play, with an extra star for a classy production of this welcome revival.
14th - 19th November - King's theatre, Edinburgh
21st - 26th November, Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford
28th November - 3rd December, Arts theatre, Cambridge