Private Lives at the Donmar review: despite Mangan and Stirling this largely joyless revival fails to spark

Rachael Stirling and Stephen Mangan in Private Lives  (Marc Brenner)
Rachael Stirling and Stephen Mangan in Private Lives (Marc Brenner)

The pairing of Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling in Noel Coward’s iconic 1930 battle-of-the-sexes comedy promised sparks, but it’s a largely joyless affair that only occasionally ignites. Dialogue that should zing falls flatter than Norfolk. And Norfolk, as Coward observed in this endlessly quotable script, is very flat indeed.

Stirling, it’s true, manifests a revelatory mix of alabaster poise and gamey sexuality. Her best moments here are the best things I’ve seen her do on stage. But an uncomfortable Mangan relies on his innate timing, and – with his unruly hair initially pasted down – looks disturbingly like Prince Andrew.

Director Michael Longhurst accentuates rather than downplays the violence that underlies the verbal sparring of divorcees Amanda and Elyot, who can’t live with or without each other. The takeaway is that these witty showoffs are far, far worse people than Victor and Sybil (Sargon Yelda and Laura Carmichael), the insufferable drips they went on to marry. But given time and opportunity, everyone will turn out to be awful.

Designer Hildegard Bechtler duly offsets Coward’s world of monied interwar glamour – where people with no clear means of support can head to Biarritz or China on a whim – with a beige colour palette and a fag-butt, sticky-glass seediness. Even the adjoining French Riviera balconies where Amanda and Elyot meet while honeymooning with their second spouses look cheap.

Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling in one of Elyot and Amanda’s better moments (Marc Brenner)
Stephen Mangan and Rachael Stirling in one of Elyot and Amanda’s better moments (Marc Brenner)

These are all valid responses, half a century after Coward’s death, to a 93-year-old play that is more radical and more savage than its reputation for clipped gentility deserves. Behind the dressing gowns, cigarettes and entitlement, Coward derides monogamy, marriage, religion and – above all – seriousness. He is always ripe for reappraisal, and some of his attitudes require rigorous interrogation, but here, the whole thing never adds up.

The scenes of spousal abuse, signaled by discordant music from the accompanying string duo, are crashingly out of kilter with the bantering dialogue, and the play ends on a jarring note. Victor and Sybil never feel like real people.

The first embrace between Amanda and Elyot looks startlingly, sensually genuine compared to the phony enthrallment and dry-humping that comes later. Mangan and Stirling interact more convincingly during the brief, silent moments of truce between the characters than when they’re lobbing aperçus at each other.

What a shame: I’ve reviewed and interviewed the two leads many times, and always approach whatever they do next with great anticipation. This show was clearly planned as a crowd-pleaser, a reappraisal of a classic and a star vehicle, but it doesn’t fully satisfy on any of those counts.

I suspect it was also supposed to set a high marker on Michael Longhurst’s very mixed tenure as artistic director of the Donmar before he leaves next year. It doesn’t do that either.

Donmar Warehouse, to May 27;