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An Intimate Comedy by Noel Coward (1930). Directed by Philip Franks.

"I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives"

To mark the centenary of Noel Coward's birth, his passionate and witty love story is presented at the National for the very first time.

An immediate hit when it was first staged in 1930, Coward's sparkling dialogue and repartee have ensured the play's popularity ever since.

Set in France in the late 1920s, the plot centres around divorcees Amanda and Elyot, who are honeymooning in the same hotel with their new spouses. Their chance meeting reminds them of why they fell in love, but also why they couldn't live together...

This is actor/director Philip Franks' first production at the National.

Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser were last seen together in the TV drama, The Politician's Wife. Juliet Stevenson's other work includes Death and the Maiden (Royal Court) and the film Truly, Madly, Deeply. Anton Lesser was recently seen on stage in Art and in Vanity Fair on TV.

The cast: Darlene Johnson, Anton Lesser, Dominic Rowan, Rebecca Saire and Juliet Stevenson.

LYTTELTON Theatre Previewed 7 May, Opened 13 May 1999, Closed 6 September 1999

Extracts from the reviews:

"...Sex hormones fizz and flare up in this wonderfully unhealthy three-acter, one of the most incessantly flippant plays ever written. Which is why the National Theatre is right to take it seriously and give the lead roles to two fine actors, Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser, who you would normally expect to see in something heavy by Brecht. The result? You get clout where it matters - and not just in the great punch-up scene... This is a play for and about the jazz age - with knobs on - and Ms Stevenson, sensational in black Palozzo pants, underlines its cynicism to give an acid bite to dialogue that's as crisp as a cocktail gherkin. Pawing each other like sex-starved baboons, they're a wonderfully intimate couple. Lesser effortlessly negotiates lines such as "women should be struck regularly, like gongs" to a deafening audience reaction, while Rebecca Sair is fine as the dreadful Sybil, with Dominic Rowan as poor, dull Victor. Stephen Brimson's lush sets take you right into the exclusive heart of the play's rich, idle snobbish world. There's genuine moral depravity on display here - when you stop chuckling long enough to think about it, that is." The Express

"Bravo, Juliet. Encore, and more of Lesser. With reservations... Noel Coward's perfectly constructed comedy has been given a thorough but only intermittently funny revival in the Lyttelton. This is because of all the effort involved. The two leads leave no stone of subtext unturned. The first act on a hotel balcony in Normandy takes almost 55 minutes playing time... Lesser and Stevenson play the Strindbergian intensity, but a chemical ingredient of, oh, glamour and sexiness is missing... The Normandy hotel balcony designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis looks like the Taj Mahal in that damned moonlight, the Paris flat a tall triangular museum of modern art. Lines such as 'Kiss me before you die and worms pop out of your eye sockets' do not sting if the pay-off ('Elyot, worms don't pop') doesn't reestablish the surface veneer. Private Lives embodies Coward's profound belief in triviality while suggesting that brutality in sex -'Women should be struck regularly, like gongs' - is a fact of life. You can certainly see this revival as a tribute to Coward's cynical view of normal domesticity, as well as to his abiding brilliance. But you may not love it as much as you'd like." The Daily Mail

"... Unfortunately Philip Franks, director of this ill-starred centenary production, has subjected Private Lives to a radical facelift. Thanks to his attentions and those of his miscast stars, Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser, this handsome comedy of manners is left scarred and sagging. You can glimpse and relish the comic outline, but what a destructive knife has been wielded. Franks rejects the way Coward is traditionally played: cool as a royal snub, emotions tied up in understatement and repression. Elyot and Amanda, who meet by chance on the adjoining terraces of a Deauville hotel where they are honeymooning with their respectively boring partners, discover old passions. Accordingly Stevenson and Lesser, serious actors who never resist the lure of a good tantrum, turn up the heat. But the comic point and pathos about Coward's style and this couple in particular is that his characters do not wear hearts on their sleeves. They use flippancy to conceal feelings. Elyot and Amanda are caught in undercurrents of erotic excitement. The comedy only comes across forcefully if they are on their guard, struggling to keep old desires hidden. Here, though, everything hangs heavily out. Miss Stevenson sets a faintly menacing mood. Mr Lesser, a slightly camp figure who leaps from his seat like a surprised rabbit when he recognises Amanda, is not so much Coward's narcissist charmer as a fraught loser who succumbs to flaps. There's not much more than the odd crackle of the famous sexual electricity that courses between the lovers. The comic tone keeps failing. When the adultery-prone couple escape to Amanda's Parisian apartment, their famous fight is so fast and furious you would almost think this was the sex war as grimly waged by Strindberg or Edward Albee. Here the sturdy Miss Stevenson dances a wild tango and in fury brings the frail Lesser crashing to the floor..." The London Evening Standard

"...Since the play is regularly staged elsewhere, one does expect something special from a showing at the nation's premier classical theatre. And thanks to Juliet Stevenson's ability to bring depth to a character still often played as a slightly over-age, vastly self-indulgent member of the Charleston generation, something special is what Philip Franks's production proceeds to deliver... Amanda and Elyot's flight to Paris, the rapture and the quarrels that, with wounds exchanged and possessions smashed, come to a more violent climax than in any Private Lives I've seen before. Sounds as if the production lacks fun? In fact, the first-night laughter was consistent. Moreover, Stevenson answers those who have her categorised as a sombre, even tragic actress. You cannot call her reaction to the reappearance of Elyot a mere double-take, nor is the "yes" with which, moments later, she admits to Victor that she is lying a meek monosyllable. Her face tightens, flickers, sags, in a bravura display of minimalist wit. But the revival's achievement is to show us two people who find it hard to be together but impossible to be apart. Though Lesser expresses direct passion strongly, and always suggests that Elyot's trademark flippancy is actually bravado, one can imagine a darker, more inner performance of the role. But Stevenson packs half her lines with subtext and all her pauses with feeling..." The Times

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