Private Lives at The Mill at Sonning: a ‘misguidedly faithful production’

We’ll always have Paris. Specifically, we’ll have Louise (Celia Cruwys-Finnigan), the beret-wearing accordion player who gave “Tainted Love” the “La Vie en Rose” remix before the curtain went up at the Mill at Sonning. When my frustration with Tam Williams’s misguidedly faithful production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives became too great, I thought of Louise. She, and the beautiful Mill that houses the theatre, proved the highlight of our critics’ field day in Reading. 

When the action begins, Elyot Chase (Darrell Brockis) and his new wife, Sibyl (Lydea Perkins) have just arrived at a hotel in Deaville. It is the first night of their honeymoon, and despite Elyot’s protests, young Sibyl can’t resist asking about his first honeymoon with the tempestuous Amanda (Eva Jane Willis). By all accounts, Elyot’s earlier marriage was explosively passionate. Few household furnishings emerged unscathed when the pair became rancorous. The hotel ought to invest in extra insurance, for who is honeymooning on the adjacent terrace but Amanda, who is fresh from her wedding to the buttoned-down Victor Prynne (Tom Berkeley). When the former lovers come face-to-face over evening cocktails, their attraction flares again, and they decide to escape to Paris. Occasional amusement ensues. 

While a farcical coincidence launches Coward’s play, the manic spirit and physical dynamism of a true farce is absent, particularly from the second act. Once the philandering twosome are installed in Amanda’s pied-a-terre, the dramatic energy declines rapidly. Elyot and Amanda vacillate between declarations of love, and spitting condemnations. Their spats and reconciliations are both hyperbolic, and predictable. While the cast members are to be applauded for their able handling of Coward’s complex dialogue, their mannered delivery, however faithful to the playwright’s vision, is alienating.

Celia Cruwys-Finnigan in Private Lives.

Furthermore, in compensation for their emotional shallowness—Victor declares of his rival, “He’s so terribly trivial and superficial”—the characters need to be deeply interesting; unfortunately, neither Coward, nor the performers, manage to imbue the honeymooners with sufficient charisma. Amanda and Elyot are simply wealthy, unlikable people hurting other wealthy, minimally likeable people. Finally, perhaps I’m being a millennial stick-in-the-mud, but I don’t find domestic violence funny. 

For all that, it looks awfully pretty. Costume designer Natalie Titchener drapes the heroines in the free-flowing, pooling fabrics of the early 1930s, and makes the gents admirably dapper. Michael Holt’s set manages the compact space exceptionally well. The hotel terrace folds away as the Paris flat emerges. 

Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero and Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife are coming up next at the Mill. I think a murder mystery and a proper farce will prove more satisfying fare than Coward’s problematic comedy. The location is beautiful. The theatre ought to be just as pleasing.


Private Lives is at the Mill at Sonning until 3rd August, 2019.

Photograph credit: Andreas Lambis.

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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