Delightful comedy of manners

Steven Stead and Clare Mortimer as the couple who can’t live together yet can’t live apart. A scene from KickstArt’s Private Lives.

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Stage: Private Lives – Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, UKZN campus, Durban
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
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WHEN it was first staged by Durban’s KickstArt in 2003, in the tiny and now-defunct KwaSuka Theatre in Greyville, Private Lives starred Ralph Lawson, Belinda Harward, Stacey Taylor, Olivia Borgen and Kevin Turner. Directed and designed by Greg King, the production took Durban Theatre Awards for Andrew Verster’s costumes and the supporting performance of Kevin Turner.

Now the classic and delicious Noel Coward comedy of manners, which had its first performance in 1930, with Coward himself acting alongside Gertrude Lawrence and a very young Laurence Olivier, is co-directed for KickstArt by Steven Stead and Mervyn McMurtry.

For its long-overdue revisiting it plays out on the bigger and grander canvas of Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre stage, on a truly enchanting, customarily detailed set by King which, in the first act, depicts two adjacent hotel room balconies and, in the second act, a sprawling Parisian lounge with grand piano and three doorways.

Jessica Sole and Iain Robinson in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, co-directed by Steven Stead and Mervyn McMurty.

The production, set in the early 1930s, has a rich and handsome feel, further embellished with beautiful costumes by Terrence Bray and Tina le Roux’s ace lighting.

This perfectly baked, light-souffle of a play features a cast with great chemistry and impeccable comic timing. The direction and performances are so good that a second-half scene involving awkward conversation by four people in a lounge proves hilarious, as much for its amusing dialogue as for facial expressions during pauses of silence.

As Elyot Chase, a dapper and flamboyant gent newly married to a much younger bimbette blonde, the somewhat suffocating Sibyl (the ever-excellent Jessica Sole), Stead offers a performance fizzing with fun. He sometimes teeters towards being just a tad too camp and, at last night’s opening performance, had a distracting habit of playing too much with a stray lock of his hair in the second act, but otherwise he is a perfect combination of style, cheek, pose and poise.

Belinda Henwood as French maid Louise and Iain Robinson as Victor in Private Lives.

Elyot and Sibyl are about to enjoy their honeymoon in a swanky French hotel, where we first meet them having awkward moments on the balcony of their suite, while planning cocktails before dinner.

Elyot’s former wife, Amanda, and her new husband, Victor, meanwhile, are coincidentally also about to start their honeymoon at the same hotel – and have a room adjacent to Elyot.

Amanda is played by a luminous Clare Mortimer, who has spent far too long away from KickstArt’s principal-role stable. She makes for a lovely and spunky Amanda, a spirited, independent, vivacious woman who celebrates her unconventionality and is a tonic for her times.

Iain Robinson, in a role marking his 10th production with KickstArt, is a constant delight in his subtle, nuanced and increasingly amusing depiction of the stuffy, stodgy and humourless Victor.

The comedy flows when Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other and, in spite of five years since their divorce, suddenly realise they are still in love. Unable to live together and unable to live apart, they set a plan in action that leads to much hilarity, loads of crackling, witty exchanges and, by the end of the show, one severely trashed room.

Steven Stead and Clare Mortimer in Private Lives.

Also featuring Belinda Henwood in a too-short depiction of a dowdy French maid with a bad cold and a way with a baguette (you have to be there), Private Lives is a joy of a show which, it is pointed out in McMurtry’s programme notes, was voted by the London Independent as one of the “40 best plays of all time”.

The play, for which Coward wrote his classic song, Someday I’ll Find You, also has the distinction of appearing in the top 10 on the Royal National Theatre’s list of  the 100 most significant plays of the 20th century.

The KickstArt production, which received a standing ovation at last night’s opening performance, makes one realise, and for the umpteenth time, what a vital treasure this independent and widely acclaimed theatre company is to Durban. Long may it thrive!

Private Lives runs only until November 3. Performances are at 7.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, with matinees at 2.30pm on Saturdays and 4pm on Sundays. Booking is at Computicket.

Iain Robinson, Jessica Sole, Steven Stead and Clare Mortimer in KickstArt’s Private Lives, in Durban until November 3.

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