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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