Intimate Coward – Private Lives Review

THE Oxford Shakespeare Company’s summer residence at Wadham College only lasts for seven weeks. A pity because it provides theatrical delight.

This year, the group has performed Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost and Noel Coward’s Private Lives in the delightful grounds of Wadham, a college founded in 1610 by Dorothy and Nicolas Wadham. Both open air productions have been widely acclaimed – and rightly so.

Private Lives, the second of the two plays to be performed, finished its run on Friday (August 17). But it went out with a sparkle, thanks to thrilling performances from the play’s four main characters. None more so than Imogen Daines who plays Amanda with a wonderful vibrancy. Manipulative, sassy, sexy and dangerous – and always dressed to kill. On this performance, Daines is destined for greatness.

Her Amanda is more than a match for the two men (among many in her life to date) who vie for her affection at various stages throughout Private Lives – the charming but tempestuous Elyot (Timothy Allsop) and Victor (Matthew Pearson) who is terribly upright, pompous and somewhat boring. Completing the set is a neurotic Sybil (Rachel Winters) who is more interested in what has happened in the past rather than enjoying the moment. Winters plays her splendidly, her eyes literally bulging with fury on occasion as she tears into either Elyot or Victor. Married at some stage to both – as indeed is Amanda to the pair of them.

While Private Lives is 88 years young, it has not lost any of relevance. Although the magnificent costumes (Adrian Lillie) talk of a different age, its focus on relationships and all that they bring – love, lust, jealousy, sudden mood changes, the influence of alcohol, physical violence – are just as relevant in 2018 as they were in 1930. Food for personal reflection as the four in turn purr and scratch each other’s eyes out.

Staged in the round, the set is simple with each scene bookended with a passable musical interlude by the performers. The round makes for an intimate viewing experience as the four preen and scream at each other. You can literally see the feathers they spit at each other although it is a little harder to imagine that for the first half of the play you are meant to be on the beautiful Rivera. The astute direction of Michael Oakley ensures the play rattles along at a great pace, never once losing its momentum. One moment fun, the next rather scary as one or two of the characters gets physical.

A final word for Sioned Jones who completes the cast. Her cameo as the grumpy housekeeper of Amanda’s Parisian home is delightful as is her earlier performance before the second scene when she silently dusts away, showing all the pleasure of someone heading for the electric chair.

Although rugs were required by the time Private Lives drew to an end, the play’s warmth more than compensated. A great play performed with refreshing zest from a stellar cast. More please from Oxford Shakespeare Company.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

For The Oxford Shakespeare Company

For Wadham College

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