Review: Private Lives by Noel Coward at Chichester Festival Theatre Minerva Studio

‘Television is for appearing on – not for looking at’ – Noel Coward famously pronounced.

But his view of the stage was different.

While he crafted some of the most enduring roles in the 20th century – sought after by the greatest names in theatre – his work was designed for the appreciation of the audience.

Never was that more true than in the latest revival of his arguably finest work Private Lives.

It first opened in 1930 to mixed reviews and the censors had to be persuaded to allow parts of it to be performed.

But time has shown that the discerning paying public shares none of these concerns.

On the surface it is a simple, almost feather light plot. After three years of rollercoaster marriage Elyot (Toby Stephens) and Amanda (Anna Chancellor) divorce.

Five years’ later they are each enjoying their honeymoons to new partners – but by coincidence in the same hotel in adjoining rooms.

When they meet again, they know in an instant the awful truth – they can neither live with one another nor without.

So begins an emotional journey, which would be dark indeed were it not for the illumination of Coward’s wonderful wit and surprising characterization.

Never an easy play to stage, this latest revival is an elegant masterpiece under the supreme direction of Jonathan Kent.

The cast is perfection itself, despite the hallowed names who have performed the roles before.

The set is a piece of mechanical mastery.

This is the final production of the Festival 2012. Arguably it is the best.

Audiences loved it, and so did I.

Gary Shipton