Bickering is not usually considered an evening’s entertainment, but when it is as good as the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s production of Private Lives it is unmissable. When Amanda says: “I was brought up to believe that it was beyond the pale for a man to strike a woman.” Elyot replies: “A very poor tradition. Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” So begins this comedy of manners that is full of camp humour, a laugh a minute, and verbal, as well as actual, sparring.
It is 1930. Elyot and Amanda have divorced five years ago and are now honeymooning with their new spouses in Deauville, France. They soon find out, however, they are not only in the same hotel but adjoining suites. At first glance, setting a play that takes place in France and largely indoors in Wadham College’s garden shouldn’t work. It’s a brave choice by Director Nicholas Green that pays off, making the performance more enriching and enjoyable. The music by strolling players also helps, which is Charles Trenet’s La Mer, a pleasing motif repeated throughout the play.
The work is memorable because of Noël Coward’s dialogue, and here it is delivered quick and sharp. It’s a surprise that the two-minute silences, which come whenever Elyot and Amanda say their private code word “Solomon Isaacs” to take time out from arguing, work smoothly onstage and are just as engaging. All of the actors keep up with the pace, especially Amanda, played by Pandora Clifford, who is perfect as the flamenco dancing, mink wearing queen of catty comebacks. And Matthew Fraser Holland’s brief appearance as a female maid is hilarious, as he keeps the audience laughing with every line of his over the top French accent.
Some of the fight scenes are a bit sloppy, and the two intervals unnecessary. The play is, however, reminiscent of the company’s successful 2006 production The Importance of Being Earnest, as it is performed with the same wit, speed, and gusto. After the charming production of The Tempest, which is also on, it is interesting to see the company mature into Private Lives. Who knew bickering could be this much fun.
Runs till 20 August.
To see or not to see: * * * *