Noël Coward's Private Lives (West End Theatre Series)
Cert: 12A / 113 mins*1 / Dir. Jonathan Kent
As part of their 'West End Theatre Series', Cinema Live have filmed a production of Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre. Largely so that people like myself, who like the idea of the theatre if not the actuality, can get a little bit of culture for a change.
Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens lead the classic Noël Coward play, as a divorced couple who meet again while honeymooning with their new partners*2, and decide to resume their stormy relationship again. Anthony Calf and Anna-Louise Plowman have the supporting roles as their aggrieved other-halves, and the first two acts variously feature the players interacting as pairs, although the final one has all four characters trading insults and barbs (and is all the sleeker and funnier for it). While the setup doesn't exactly sound laugh-a-minute, it's an excellent platform for Coward's writing, and he's certainly put plenty of himself into both of the leads. Chancellor is consistently strong in her role, with Stephens mostly matching her but really coming into his own in the final scenes. Calf and Plowman are close enough for jazz, but I'm not entirely sure they're suited to the parts. That said, they make for a fine ensemble together, and that's what's important.
But here's the thing…
Noël Coward's comedy is delicate and restrained, even (especially) at its most vicious, and that's undermined by having the performers overacting and bellowing at each other throughout. Because this was a filmed theatrical performance, the cast are playing for the crowd that's there, not the cinema patrons who - thanks to the camerawork - are a lot closer to the action than the live audience. At many points in the first act it felt like rehearsed lines being repeated on-cue, rather than spontaneous wit*3, and it's a shame because there are some great lines in there which need more interaction to really shine. By the final act when all of the characters are on-stage together, there's a reason for the raised voices and elevated personalities, so it all works much better in context.
From a technical standpoint, while the camerawork kept the pace moving nicely, it looks like the operators have been working on zoom to avoid them walking across the stage during a live performance (which is fair enough). But because of this, the few infrequent scenes featuring fast movement of people or objects look really choppy and framey. It's not a deal-breaker, but I'd be surprised if no-one in post-production noticed. Another odd choice was to have the sound projected from the front speakers only, by the screen, making the show much quieter than other stage-productions I've seen at the cinema, and exacerbating the shouty performances.
But, still. All in all, I did enjoy the play, but I don't think this is the best performance of it (even from this cast), and I'm sure that I'd have had far more fun in the theatre. It may yet happen...
Not as much as I know I should have.
In the theatre, undoubtedly; in the cinema, not quite.
If you get the opportunity to see it live, do it..
Probably not this version.
Have you seen this live? How did it work for you?
*2 That's 113 minutes with the 15 min interval. Just saying. Yeah.
*2 I have to admit to spending most of the first act thinking "So Noël Coward essentially wrote the first draft of Duty Free? Wow…"
*3 Yes, I know that's exactly what it is, and I know it's exactly the performers' job to make me forget this ;)
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
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