Private Lives review: Thoughtful production of the Noel Coward classic

When Elyot’s ex Amanda (Rachael Stirling) does precisely the same thing with her new husband Victor (Sargon Yelda) on the adjacent balcony, the coincidence sparks a marital catastrophe. Their mutual ardour reignited, the divorcées run away together, abandoning their bewildered spouses.

The set up of two identical scenarios mirroring each other eventually bleeds into comedy drama in a Paris apartment as Elyot and Amanda renew their passion as well as their enmity.

Michael Longhurst’s production is inventively mounted with the balconies above a stage covered in dust sheets that slip away to reveal the furnishings of the Paris apartment.

A cellist and a violinist sit opposite each other, delivering a musical wit of their own. Yet the tone of champagne cynicism is darker here than usual.

Domestic violence has crept in to replace an atmosphere of barbed elegance with a more feral mood.

The post-coital fights between Amanda and Elyot are brutal and visceral with resounding slaps, near-stranglings and hurled glasses smashing against walls making this the most violent production of the play I have ever seen.

While Mangan is solid as Elyot, he could afford to be funnier, though he plays the piano and smokes cigarettes like a bar-room veteran.

Cocking her hip with the aggressive insouciance of a gunslinger, Stirling is slinky and sensual one minute, acid-tongued and viperish the next. Carmichael brings a touching fragility to the jilted Sibyl and Yelda is appropriately pedantic as the upright, uptight Victor.

If Coward’s rapier wit has been blunted, I saw for the first time how Elyot and Amanda might evolve into George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.

More bitter than sweet, it remains faithful to Coward’s conclusion that this theatrically self-regarding couple deserve each other for better or, more likely, worse.

Donmar Warehouse, London, until May 27 Tickets: 020 3282 3808

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