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Private Lives, Vaudeville Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Private Lives, Vaudeville Theatre

Private Lives, Vaudeville Theatre

Kim Cattrall sells the sizzle in a Coward revival that could use more sex

Sex and the City, Coward-style: Kim Cattrall and Matthew Macfadyen play Amanda and ElyotNobby Clark

The Vaudeville Theatre is turning into London's de facto playground for female icons from American TV. A few weeks ago, the venue hosted the misbegotten local cabaret debut of Will and Grace star Megan Mullally, who had scarcely set foot on stage before announcing that she had left her star-making role of Karen at home.

(That's not all that was absent from the evening.) Now, along comes Kim Cattrall, in her third London stage appearance since becoming everyone's favourite glamour puss from Sex and the City, and guess what? Her Amanda in Private Lives brings with it more than a whiff of that celebrated New York sensualist, Samantha.

Consider, for instance, the leading lady's belated entrance on to the Riviera balcony of Rob Howell's shimmering set for the opening scene, in which Cattrall appears wrapped in a towel, looking bronzed and beautiful and very much like someone who can't really be bothered to dress for dinner. (Or, at dinner, is counting the minutes until she can once again disrobe.) And though her speaking voice has been noticeably pushed up into a not-quite-natural register in order to accommodate those inimitably cut-glass Noel Coward sounds, you can imagine Samantha echoing Amanda's remark after the interval, "Heaven prevent me from nice women." Hell, the names Samantha and Amanda even sound alike, though these are two people who would doubtless find something naughty in a descriptive word like "assonance".

You have to wonder, then, what the ever-wry sceptic in Samantha would make of a Private Lives whose Amanda is game to go, only to encounter sexlessness at every turn. You don't have to savour the memory of the inimitable 2001 London (and, later, Broadway) revival of this same play, with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in near-perfect union, to be alert to the extraordinary mixture of heartache and erotic yearning that makes Coward's play thrum. But how one wishes that so ripely suggestive a Coward creature - the milieu is made-to-order for Cattrall - had a co-star who was her match. Hmmm. I wonder if George Clooney can do a posh British accent ...

In the meantime, we have Matthew Macfadyen, who goes even further than did Jasper Britton in the last London staging of this play two years ago in suggesting that Elyot is at base a beautifully attired beast. Remarking, "Come and kiss me darling", he sounds as if he is going through the poshly phrased paces. But let him mention striking women regularly, "like gongs", and you could just as well be watching a well-off city type who is wilting under the pressure and whose domestic misdeeds are about to make headlines in the never-written sequel to this play. The result lends Coward's play a frisson but not necessarily of the right kind. Whereas one ought to feel that Amanda and Elyot can't keep their hands off one another, even if that sexual tension results in the most knockabout of fights, you feel here as if a man who is not very nice has got his claws into a particularly kittenish companion. And that she, in her way, is too weak to let go - think Marilyn Monroe on some sort of Parisian idyll.

If the central balance of Richard Eyre's production seems off, the subsidiary roles of Victor and Sibyl strike unusual notes as well. Intriguingly, both Simon Paisley Day and Lisa Dillon look to some degree like Macfadyen and Cattrall, respectively, which raises the suggestion that Elyot and Amanda in their subsequent spouses have merely gone for more downmarket versions of what they had before. (Not necessarily younger, though, since the excellent Day looks, strangely, at least Macfadyen's age if not older.) Dillon, like Emma Fielding before her in that superlative 2001 Howard Davies staging, may simply be too classy a performer to field a role that Coward clearly doesn't like; one reason that Sara Crowe in this same part two decades ago reigned supreme was by playing Sibyl full-on as the very joke that Coward makes her out to be. ("Don't quibble, Sibyl", remains one of the great rhymes in dramatic literature.)

But it is Day, in the performance of the night, who most intrigues, playing the embodiment of - gasp! - normalcy, which in Coward's world amounts essentially to a very real waste of human space. Visibly stiffening as events around him get more chaotic, Day's Victor looks, by the end, as if he is eyeing up Elyot and Amanda as alien beings who aren't much more comprehensible than the fish seen paddling around in designer Howell's aptly goldfish bowl-like surrounds for Coward's second and third acts. (I love the moment when this Victor taps his teacup in an attempt to restore order.) Having leant comparably essential support to last year's Trafalgar Studios revival of Entertaining Mr Sloane, Day once again proves a not-so-quiet revelation, if only because I've never seen Victor played so close to a complete hysteric.

Day's 11th-hour antics precede an ending that is the exact inverse of Hay Fever, where the guests beat a hasty retreat, leaving the Bliss family to their gloriously narcissistic ways. Here, Victor and Sibyl grab centre stage, while Amanda and Elyot creep away to attempt a renewed life together. How long do you give them? Let's just say that I can imagine Samantha purring, "Not a lot."

  • Private Lives is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 1 May. Book online

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