As the open-air theatre season starts to wind down in
The play revolves around a pair of newlyweds honeymooning next to each other in a Rivera hotel. But within these two couples are the previously divorced Elyot and Amanda, who upon being reunited find themselves being drawn back together, even as they start something new.
Coward's text seems perfect for a performance in college grounds. The play is deliciously smart and peppered with ferociously witty lines. It mostly feels a piece of its time, but it does occasionally sparkle with relevance. A conversation about the magnitude of changes the characters have been through in their time could easily be words spoken in a modern play. And the descriptor that Elyot has for Victor of a "cotton-wool Englishman" is the perfect insult for today. So, Private Lives is more then a slice of 30s theatre fluff. The most impressive fact about it is that it took Coward just three days to write it.
This is a refreshingly breezy production, with the cast rattling out their lines at a delicious pace. Staged in the round, director Michael Oakley has a suitably intimate take, playing into the privacy of the title. The cast move through the space, inhabiting it, meaning that there will be moments where an argument or intimate kiss will be taking place straight in front of you. But the action rarely gets lost in the blocking, and the play gains greatly from a clarity in its staging and some wonderful period costumes courtesy of costume designer Adrian Lillie.
As with previous Oxford Shakespeare Company productions, the cast are strong throughout. There is a clear chemistry between the ensemble, from the moment they perform the first song (each scene is book-ended by them), through to the blazing rows of the second half. Each performer skilfully manages to find the right rhythm to give Coward's text the bounce it needs. Timothy Allsop makes a very good Elyot, mostly able to remain likeable even when portraying the character's fierce temper. Rachel Winters keeps Sybil a relatively sympathetic character, whilst showing enough of the grey areas to make her more then a hapless victim of her circumstances. Matthew Pearson's Victor is pitiable, pompous and pleasant all at once, while Sioned Jones makes an amusing cameo in the play's final act. Yet the performance that lingers at the end of the show is Imogen Daines as Amanda, whose character feels the most complicated of the group; a fascinating juxtaposition, at once approachable and yet positively dangerous.
This production manages to skirt effortlessly around the somewhat archaic nature of Coward's text thanks to well-paced delivery, clear blocking, and the ensemble's strong chemistry. This feels like a very good way to cap off this season of open-air theatre, and highlights why Oxford Shakespeare Company are exceedingly good at producing such shows.