In accents just the right side of clipped, Elyot and Amanda reignite the obsessive emotional connection that drew them into, as Amanda puts it, "selfishness, cruelty, hatred, possessiveness, petty jealousy". Flaunting the conventions and hypocrisies of upper-class society, they adopt as their credo "Let's be superficial and pity the poor philosophers". Freed from outside influence, however, their tempestuous inner worlds and claustrophobic exchanges - their "private lives" - consume them, trapping them in an endless cycle of love and recrimination.
Coward famously said the secret of great acting is to remember one’s lines and not bump into the furniture. Thankfully the cast bring a whole lot more to the table, imbuing his rapid-fire bon mots with an emotional authenticity and depth which is credit to director Helen Taylor’s sensitive reading of the play. Through Jonathan Webb's lip-curling ennui we see glimpses of sadism, while Jenni Middleton's giddy charm masks a restlessness that belies her self-proclaimed "jagged sophistication". Missing none of the dialogue's ample comic potential the two leads are at the same time utterly believable as the doomed couple trapped in a love/hate relationship. While Coward isn’t one for didacticism, one thing is evident as the drama unfolds: the protagonists can never live up to their own hedonistic doctrine, and we believe Amanda, a little regretfully, when she tells us "this is far too perfect to last".
The play's secondary couple, the hapless Sybil and Victor get a chance to shine in Act Three, when in a cunning reversal of roles we find them bickering ferociously as Amanda and Elyot kiss and make up in the background. The excellent Rachel Johnson as Sybil works her lines with kittenish dexterity while Alistair Nunn’s Victor is all uptight adherence to form. Skilful performances all round, coupled with the director’s dexterous stagecraft (particularly evident in Act Two's room-trashing blow-out during which the sparring couple go head-to-head in the stage equivalent of a posh Jerry Springer) this fast-paced, funny revival has a lot more to offer than cigarette holders, clipped accents and silk cravats.