In Coward country

A Noël Coward revival in the West End hits some high notes

Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen pair up as Amanda and Elyot, the lovers who love and hate each other in equal measure, in Noël Coward's Private Lives at the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Undoubtedly the screen stars were there to lure the punters, but it is a testament to the skill of these performers that they shake free of past roles that could have dogged him and her off the telly.

Cattrall, more sassy than sexy, flows around the stage like quicksilver, and is attuned to the changes of gear and rhythm in Coward's text. In marked contrast stands Macfadyen, who is all unyielding bulk, with tiny touches -- a twitching right hand, for instance -- revealing stress and tension, and some fabulously camp and bitchy topnotes to his vocal range. Strangely satisfying to see a big man squeak. Their bodies artfully calibrate and lock together, or strike symmetrical attitudes, to point up their need for one another.

This in contrast to their physical dealings with their respective spouses: Lisa Dillon, as the unfortunate Sybil, forces intimacy with her reluctant husband, wrapping and patting him, lacing herself under his arm. Simon Paisley Day plays Victor with a buttoned-down, welded stiffness that makes his eventual undoing all the funnier.

The curtain opens on a conventional enough balcony scene, where the divorced old flames discover that they are honeymooning in adjacent rooms. Rob Howell's set in act two appears to offer us a drawing room that we have seen a hundred times before, on a hundred stages, with a depressing degree of specificity, down to the very gewgaws on the grand piano. But all is not quite as it seems. For starters, it looks as if Dalì has had a hand in the decor; and secondly, without this proliferation of objects, we would be denied the undoubted pleasure of watching them all being smashed up during Cattrall and Macfayden's spectacular fight. One particularly delicious moment has the nicely apt goldfish bowls being cracked open by a pole-wielding Amanda, their contents arcing out spectacularly.

It's now hard to believe that the Lord Chamberlain took issue with the whole of this second act, focusing as it does on unmarried post-coital bickering. Which highlights the questionable continuing relevance of what cynics might argue is a dated, cash-cow of a comedy. The age of glamour and leisure evoked by the play, of foreign travel where one experiences "barbaric" customs, of the upper-class mindset in which servants are, apparently, amusing -- doubly amusing if they're foreign -- this is all surely as dead as the 1930s accents that the cast fields.

Or so I thought, until I tuned into the conversation of two redoubtable women behind me, and their first-class liner down the Suez, their dislike of cruises ("All they do is queue for food"), Ladies Day at Ascot -- and wasn't Chelsea getting ghastly? Coward country just about lives on.

It is interesting to speculate that just as we are outsiders to this scene, so indeed was Coward -- as a gay man from a relatively poor background -- and perhaps this accounts for the acidity of his observations. Maybe it's why the dialogue still sounds fresh and funny. In the director Richard Eyre's hands this production does allow a breeze of modernity to blow the dust off Coward's glittering surfaces: there's more than a touch of ironic retrospect to Simon Paisley Day's diction as he elongates the 1930s vowels into "orf" and "gorn". And the set, with its hints of the surreal, similarly reviews the era.

The 2010 lens is not screwed in too tightly: Eyre could have presented a darker, more disturbing Coward; after all, domestic violence and misogyny are rarely laughing matters. Elyot does have some vicious lines: "I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe," among others. But the tone is played syllabub light. We no more care about the protagonists' pain than Punch and Judy's. Perhaps this insistence on the superficial and the trivial is a key to the play's continuing success. A carpe diem championing of flippancy in the face of adversity seems to weather well: "Come and kiss me darling, before your body rots and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets."

Coward wrote this play to show off his acting talents and those of Gertrude Lawrence, and as such it is something of a gift for performers. The current cast, flippant to the end, extract delirious comedy among the coffee cups, the sugar and the brioches.

"Private Lives" runs at the Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage