Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

fighting couple

Back in the old routine: runaways Amanda (Ruth Herd) and Elyot Mark Plastow) remember life's not quite that easy. Pictures: Peter Weston/Talisman Theatre.

Private Lives

Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth


Recently I stuck my neck out by suggesting that Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, which originally won countless awards plus the highest critical acclaim, and has just been seen in a perfectly presentable production at The Loft Theatre in Leamington, isn’t nearly as good a play as it’s made out to be.

Partly because it’s dated, but’s that’s not a very fair or appropriate line of attack: but because the content, thing to muse upon, the insights of the text are, well, next to nothing.

Maybe I’m getting my come-uppance: Noël Coward: Art and Style has just opened at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, and runs till Christmas. There is a Noël Coward Archive Trust ( in central London, with additional collections at the Universities of Birmingham and Bristol, as well in the USA at Harvard and New York.  

Indeed, one tribute, indeed an accolade, the Trust mentions up front is from ‘modern’ playwright John Osborne, no less: ‘Mr. Coward is his own invention and contribution to this century. The 20th century would be incomplete without Noël Coward. He was, quite simply, a genius.’  

Theatrical success continues: there was a successful UK touring production of Private Lives in 2021/22, starring Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge; and another in 2013 at London’s Gielgud Theatre starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor.

It's clear Coward’s plays are still very much in the public eye. And this admirably fresh and alive staging at The Talisman in Kenilworth perhaps showed why they should be.

The script is essentially a foursome (plus a French maid); and one has nothing but praise for the acting, the two-stages set and, maybe most notably, Jill Laurie’s adroit, perceptive direction, the last particularly of course for the detailed and varied moves, but partly also for the wonderful differentiation of characters (along with the actors’ deft invention and ingenuity), the manner of their begrudging or, in the two naiver cases, puzzled and mystified speaking, the incredibly well-judged (and quite fast) speed, and – well – for quite a lot.

It’s additionally pleasing news that the Talisman is undergoing a pretty substantial revamp, three years after the 50th anniversary of its move to the present site; the whole theatrical venture having been running for almost 80 years.

British premieres and new works have formed part of its often nine-a-season repertoire; and it sports a satisfying Youth Theatre. All this flourishes under the new Artistic Director, Steve Smith. No one could accuse it of being moribund.  

married bliss

Amanda (Ruth Herd) spies from next door on Sibyl (Mary Dunn) and Elyot (Mark Plastow)

The whole play focuses on two couples, who fall out of love and in love with the other’s partner. Every character (actually five, not four) was superbly spoken: lucid, alluring, not a word hidden or lost. First class, in fact.

The opening dwells on the fragmenting between the very assured, dismissive and habitually crushing Elyot Chase (Mark Plastow) and his enthralled, doting but rapidly, effortlessly ousted wife Sibyl (Mary Dunn)

Actually that first scene here set the evening’s standard. Her irritating passion, almost maniacal ardour and obsession is enough to drive Elyot to drink; their twosome is vividly acted, with Elyot’s constantly changing facial twists and writhings, severe, unforgiving, judgemental eyes, even wrenching eyebrows, perfectly preparing the way for the betrayal and marital swapping that will shortly follow.

Only recently married, he is frustrated and frazzled, and the more Sibyl asks ‘Are you glad you married me?’ the less enthralled he grows. sees clearly, on this up-market Deauville honeymoon, that it was a mistake. Rather, he is falling once again for his ex- Amanda Prynne; and she for him.  

Poor Sibyl is of course deeply upset, dismayed and downhearted, flustered and has no idea how to rectify the situation and keep Elyot, indeed keep him at all interested in her. All of this the homely, weepy Mary Dunn handles all of this really affectingly. As she feels sad and confused, so we feel for her and with her. A lesser performance might not have worked. Sibyl could be merely tedious, but Dunn’s cuddly, adoring newly married is not. Her situation and state are involving. Sibyl (and later her supporter, if not quite acquisition, the rather dour, wet Victor) appears less onstage than the main pair. Perhaps Coward, in the four days in 1930 he contrived to write the text, should not have pruned her so much.

The reason is that the Second Act consists entirely of – and this is wholly admirable and remarkable, a masterpiece of scripting –a twosome between Elyot and Amanda, both of whom have abandoned their spouses. It is indeed a tour-de-force for both of them, and Ruth Herd, whose Amanda has made quite a feisty impact already in Act One (she, like Plastow, has a never-ending range of faces, shrugs, fast-shifting moods and relishing of brief, rapidly terminateNow, in Act Two, comfortably ensconced in an apartment in Paris, they make a fine, indeed a perfect matched, model combative pair. Each gives as good as he (she) gets. Punches are not pulled. A prominent sofa is used at a range of well-honed moments, variously collapsed upon, in frustration, anger or challenge, or by contrast an affable brief dance, all rather clever and imaginative, the pacing and flow perfectly and miraculously timed by director Jill Laurie. d rows), comes up with sharpness, wit, cynicism and intermittent malevolence which is matched at every turn by Plastow’s Elyot (a curious spelling; the only example I could find was a celebrated English scholar and diplomat from the early 16th century).  

Sizing up - Elyot (Mark Plastow) and Victor (Will Thomas)

Quite frankly, this longish, indeed quite strenuous, double-hander was a treat. Not a dull moment. Never for a second flailed or drooped. But it also gave set designer Tim Eden the chance to open up the already rather seaside Act One set not only into something very impressive (an ample, quite luxurious lounge or sitting room), but one that was beautifully colour coordinated.

Magenta can mean quite a number of different things, but this was of the medium pinkish kind, and curtains, sofa with its cushions, chair-cushions, and other features were given this same rich and attractive colour. A treat for the eye (sometimes for throwing), but also an asset to the unfolding: exquisite hangings, wild goings-on.

Even Elyot’s dressing gown (a bit like a suave smoking-jacket) matches. The music, some emanating from an old horn gramophone, was presumably essentially Coward, and kept lullingly and rather beautifully at low volume by sound editor/recordist Colin Thomas, was enchanting. (He wrote ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’ specifically for this play.) All credit.

How to light alluringly and imaginatively, especially given the largely unaltering indoor location of Acts Two and Three, provides always a frustrating dilemma, as it did here for Peter Weston. Perhaps keeping it simple is the answer. Most of the evening was yellow-lit, and one ached for something more, some variety.

When the maid opens the curtains to let the morning in, surely the effect of (what could be an unlit) indoors should be quite noticeably altered. At one place in Act Two where a change, I imagine to more white, did occur, it was a nicely imagined touch and a welcome relief. Maybe one needed more such skilled adjustments.

Another doubt: the only tangible criticism of Plastow’s Elyot is that he tucks his hands, or just one hand, into his pocket (trouser, jacket, DJ, dressing gown, etc.) too much: an old actors’ deficiency, relieving them of the frequent, understandable dilemma of what to do with them. A bit of a swizz really, as he clearly has the creative gift and talent.

Hands need, indeed could have been, used more evocatively to express. Something missed. By strong contrast, arms folded, however, and especially his artful deployment of his (not quite) chain-smoking cigarettes is constantly original and varied. In a sense, masterly. Amanda proves a skilled shrewd cigarette deployer too.

To be honest, that reservation partly applies to Will Thomas’s Victor, Amanda’s defeated husband. Victor (the role was created by a 23-year-old Laurence Olivier) has perhaps the least opportunity of the four, and maybe the fact that he was more than a bit of a wet rag is you a large degree a fault of Coward’s under-sketching the part, or failure to map out something more substantial (hence upping the character).

It’s an attenuated role, and maybe for that reason a little thankless. Will Thomas, enhanced by an attractive, light, slightly tenorish - or at least high baritone – voice – attracts even by that alone.  

maid Louise

The French maid Louise, played with splendid Parisienne indifference bordering on insolence by Sarah McCaffrey

However, to offset Elyot’s excessive pockets, he offers us hands by his sides, kind of formal but not really, and this left one looking, perhaps aching, for a chunk more personality. Of course, he too is excluded from Act Two, which denies him the opportunity to develop and even blossom. Although a nice little soliloquy in Act Three – Victor to Amanda; ’I’ll let you divorce me’: a notable act of generosity – Thomas’s Victor gave rather a good showing.

 And the costumes? Rosemary Gowers, i/c that department, achieved wonders, I must imagine (not sure) from the Talisman’s own costumes collection. The outfits changes were a treat. The girls came out on top, quite naturally. Two or three ample, part flowery dresses, one an attractive green, for Sibyl. A stunning maroon outfit on which we feasted upon one of Amanda’s appearances. They really were the tops.

And she keeps that splendid, feisty, slyly domineering personality throughout: ‘A man’s job is to allure a woman’. His counter (to her demand ‘Take that back’: ‘I’ll take back anything, anything as long as you stop bellowing at me.’ ‘ You’re a bad tempered, wicked woman.’ ‘You’re nothing but a rampaging gasbag.’ And she unforeseenly volunteers ‘I’m a bad lot.’ Amanda’s mouth is as quick-changing as his. Again, imaginative.  

I firmly expected the pairs to swap back again at the end; of course I was wrong; and it would certainly have been unrealistic. But by not going down that path, Coward makes (it seemed) for a rather limp ending.

In a way it made sense; after all their rows, spats, feuds and ding-dongs, that Amanda and her old flame Elyot stick to their guns I guess seems logical. But then the play lacks a what the Greeks called peripeteia; a sudden collapse of denouement that turns expectation flat on its head. But I didn’t feel Act Three, entertaining but more limp, really pointed, adequately or sufficiently, in that direction.  

However, there was one marvellous bonus. The black-dressed, impertinent French maid, Louise (Sarah McCaffrey), was a delicious hoot. She has just two appearances – vignettes, really - fussing about coffee, being obnoxiously impertinent (but very funny – a bit of a classic touch), then clanking cups and saucers flouncily and outrageously. Very slickly acted, in so short a space a refined showing on a par with all the others. This kind of small role diversion so often makes a disproportionate impact in a play (Canon Chasuble, or Shakespeare’s Porter), and she does so here in the later stages.  

With its strikingly effective pacing – Laurie really whips it along, so it never wearies - all in all, a palpable hit for The Talisman, and a resoundingly enjoyable evening at the theatre.  

Roderic Dunnett


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