Tim Hochstrasser reviews Noel Coward’s Private Lives now playing at The Mill at Sonning.
The Mill at Sonning
July 7, 2019
A visit to the Mill at Sonning is a delightful experience in many different ways. As the name suggests, this theatre is located in a former flour mill where the water-wheel still turns and churns in what is now the bar. The mill was in operation until 1969 and is woven into the texture of English history, with a role to play in both Domesday Book and the English Civil War. The site is on an island in the Thames with the Clooneys as neighbours, and many vistas of the river open up at all angles. You can sit out on various terraces and lawns and watch the dragon flies dance above the water and feel that you are on a boat as much as on dry land.
Over above the sense of watery, rural escape (which is in fact close to London, thanks to nearby Reading station), the theatre offers an excellent dining experience as a prelude to each production. A fine buffet in one of several half-timbered upper rooms sets you up well for the theatrical treats to follow, whether matinee or evening.
At present, the theatre is home to a new production of Coward’s Private Lives, directed in 1930s period-style by Tam Williams. It is a choice that is well suited to the intimacy of the 180-seat theatre. After reviewing last at The Globe, it was a personal pleasure to be in an ambience where the actors do not have to make huge efforts at projection, and where the merest whisper will be readily audible. As you take your seat, the first set for the famous balcony scene is visible, and an accordionist is setting the mood, with suitable wistful romantic tunes, anticipating the power of memory and of ‘cheap music’ to trigger it, that is such an important theme in the play itself.
For all its familiarity, Private Lives is a hard play to bring off. Written by Coward as a virtuoso vehicle both for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, it requires four expert players to operate at the top of their games over three rather different and contrasting acts. When Alan Rickman played the lead in 2001 he described the challenge in these terms: ‘In Act One you’re up on the balcony in a Restoration comedy; then in Act Two you’re doing Chekhov; in Act Three, you’re in a Feydeau farce.’ What appears on its glittering surface to be merely a light comedy of manners is, in fact, three separate challenges that tests technique and emotional range to the highest degree.
By these exacting standards, this production does very well, if not in quite all the categories. Act One is expertly done, as is Act Two, with the exception of the last few climactic minutes, but Act Three is not quite pacey enough to meet the farcical requirements of the situation to be unravelled.
In Act One everyone is trying to be on their best behaviour, and qualities of poise, inflexion and timing are at a premium. If these are carried off well then all sorts of hidden and inferred meanings can be transmitted effortlessly to the audience. All four players manage this expertly, and the whole zips past in no time at all. One test is how the famous line ‘Very flat, Norfolk’, is delivered. Too clipped and the joke is lost; too long a pause at the comma and the joke is laboured. Eva Jane Willis, as Amanda, gets it exactly right, and the reward of a huge laugh from the house.
The younger roles, Sibyl and Victor, can often be seen as thankless foils for the two leads, but it need not be so. Such roles can be great training for higher and better things (Laurence Olivier played Victor in the first production!). Both actors here do a fine job with apparently unpromising material. Lydea Perkins, as new bride Sybil, creates a plausible arc between timorous ingénue and self-centred, assertive, even petulant adult. Likewise, Tom Berkeley escapes the confines of his stuffed shirt, stereotypical Englishman-abroad to reveal his own stubborn and even wily character by the end. There are no vulnerable victims by the end of this play, and these actors take all the opportunities the roles give them.
As the centrepiece couple, Elyot and Amanda, Darrell Brockis and Eva Jane Willis have the credible, suave chemistry needed to convince the audience that this is a pairing that can neither live with nor without the other. They embody a brittle boredom with the world around them and a sense of mischief and danger, in part driven by a desire to stave off melancholy and avoid looking at the emptiness of their own lives. This is very well conveyed in Act Two, spent in Amanda’s flat in Paris, which is the real heart of the play and the most challenging to bring off. Where it falls slightly short is in the climax where you don’t quite believe in the fight that breaks out between them, despite a credit to a fight director in the programme. It is a bit too cosy and safe, whereas you really do need an alarming and unhinged five minutes at that point in the action.
In Act Three everything seems just a tad predictable because the direction is a fraction too slow for the farcical comedy of slamming doors and unpredictable antics (though there is a very good turn from Celia Cruwys-Finnigan as the maid, Louise). Perhaps part of the problem lies with the set in this case. It seems churlish to criticise Michael Holt’s ingenious creations, which are made on-site, immaculate in period detail, and fold deftly in and out of one another; but the final act is played in a very crowded space, and perhaps that explains the degree of circumspection on the part of the actors.
Overall, the Mill at Sonning offers a delightful experience in which the setting and cuisine induce a mellow sense of satisfaction and banishment of daily care perfect for the appreciation of a play such as this, which makes a virtue of sweeping any uncongenial reality out of sight for a while. Coward would surely have approved. And the elegant production itself, while not banishing memories of others, stands comparison with West End versions, and possesses many virtues and traditional dramatic craft that you will rarely find there.
Until 3 August 2019