Picture credit: Tristram Kenton

Noel Coward’s public genius

This production of Private Lives amuses as much as it moves its audience

Artillery Row On Theatre

A few years ago, I made some steps towards researching and writing a new biography of Noel Coward. There had not been a major biography of Coward since Philip Hoare’s in 1995, and given the continued, even growing, interest in the writer-actor-singer and his work, the time seemed ripe for a new book. And the title — Noel Coward: A Private Life — seemed to suggest itself. But to be allowed to write the book, permission had to be granted from Alan Brodie, Coward’s literary executor. My indefatigable publisher arranged a meeting with Brodie, but his blessing was not forthcoming. As he reported back, “the estate have great expectations about who that biographer might be, namely someone of an age who would “be familiar with Noel’s world” and who would not (I inferred) focus on the private life too much.’

In the event, the excellent Oliver Soden, biographer of Michael Tippett, has assumed the responsibility, and his book, provisionally entitled The Lives of Noel Coward, is due to be published next year. I cannot wait. But the whole saga is a testament to how Coward, nearly half a century after his death, continues to beguile and fascinate audiences — despite or because of residual ambiguity in his private life, as a closeted gay man who refused to come out even after the legalisation of homosexuality, on the grounds that, as he quipped, “there are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know.” 

Yet Coward’s sexuality seeped into his work, whether explicitly — in the case of his flapper-drugs-hell drama The Vortex or his late play A Song at Twilight, in which the Coward-esque character Hugo Latymer is told “you’re as queer as a coot and you have been all your life” — or implicitly, in his famous works Private Lives and Design for Living. The latter explores a bisexual love triangle with a surprising degree of candour for a play written in 1932, while the former — perhaps Coward’s greatest and most revived comedy — deals with the relationship between a once-married couple who unexpectedly find themselves reunited while on honeymoon with their new spouses in Deauville. 

Christopher Luscombe’s production seems to have lost a few of Coward’s most famous insults

It is possible to view Private Lives purely at face value as a romantic comedy about a pair of selfish but hugely entertaining dilettantes who can neither live with or without one another, or alternatively to see the entire play as being written in an elaborate kind of code. In this reading, the protagonists Elyot and Amanda represent a forbidden but passionate gay relationship and the “normal” characters Sibyl and Victor standing in for the conventional forces of heterosexuality. This might sound as if it’s overthinking it, but to enjoy a Coward play is both to luxuriate in the glittering one-liners on the surface and to delve greedily into the subtext. No wonder that “Laughing” Harold Pinter — the undisputed king of subtextual drama — regularly directed revivals of Coward’s work, and owed a substantial professional debt to the man who was known, without any irony, as “The Master’. 

The latest revival of Private Lives, which has been touring the country since late last year, is the first offering from the grandly named Nigel Havers Theatre Company, and (unsurprisingly enough) stars Havers as Elyot, opposite the excellent Patricia Hodge as Amanda, with Natalie Walter and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart (the great-great nephew of the legendary secret agent RH Bruce-Lockhart) as the precautionary spouses Sibyl and Victor. 

The publicity material declares that “astonishingly, it is the first time that Nigel Havers has appeared in a Coward play on stage”. Although some of us may be less astonished by this fact than the producers, there is no doubt that the now 70-year old Havers makes a very decent fist of the role, even as he plays a part that has traditionally been ventured by actors in their thirties and forties. (The text suggests that the pair are “about thirty’.) But there is a poignancy in the pairing of Havers and Hodge as a couple who are clearly deeply in love, even later in life, and the actors skilfully convey both the sexual charge that Elyot and Amanda feel for one another and the obvious mutual affection that they have, even in extremis. 

Turn up to laugh, which you will, but you’ll be moved, too

If one wished to nitpick, Havers’ performance occasionally verges on the broad; he interrupted the tour to take a (presumably lucrative) role in pantomime at the London Palladium, and the taint of panto is sometimes to be found in his gestures and expressions, not least in the great second act scene in which Elyot and Amanda go from deep mutual uxoriousness to a stand-up fight as their old grudges and disagreements are awakened once again. But Hodge is a class act as Amanda, displaying a fine voice as she sings one of Coward’s most famous songs “Someday I’ll Find You”, and managing to hint at the deep feeling lying beneath the brilliantly cutting one-liners. 

Talking of cutting, Christopher Luscombe’s production seems to have lost a few of Coward’s most famous insults, not least “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs’, which seems bizarre in the context of Elyot shouting at Sibyl that “I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe’. But regrettable omissions aside, Luscombe’s confidently paced and superbly accomplished direction makes the evening fly by on gilded wings, with big laughs coming regularly. He is aided immeasurably by Walter and Bruce-Lockhart in support, both of whom display perfect comic timing in their second fiddle roles, and by Simon Higlett’s evocative set and costume designs and Tim Mitchell’s lighting. 

Coward and his life remain enigmatic, and I can only hope that Soden will be able to unpick the man’s complexities and ambiguities with the skill that he brought to his biography of Tippett. But until then, and possibly beyond, we will always have the glorious plays. This fine revival is an evergreen reminder of the brilliance of Coward’s rapier-like wit. And, at its best, it also manages to be deeply affecting, as expressed by Elyot’s despairing line “There isn’t a particle of you that I don’t know, remember, and want.” Turn up to laugh, which you will, but you’ll be moved, too. And that is the mark of a true genius, private or otherwise. 

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