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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Private Lives revealed
Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan have performed together before in the West End
Passion, wit and anguish in Private Lives
By BBC News Online's Emma Saunders

Today's theatre-going public may be used to Mark Ravenhill-style shock tactics but Noel Coward's Private Lives must have unnerved audiences when it was first performed in 1931.

The comedy tells the tale of a divorced couple, Elyot (Alan Rickman) and Amanda (Lindsay Duncan) who meet again after five years while they are both on honeymoon with their new spouses.

They fall in love all over again and with just a cursory thought for their unfortunate partners, Sybil (Emma Fielding) and Victor (Adam Godley), they elope to Amanda's flat in gay Paree.

It may be a rather flimsy plot based on an incredulous coincidence but it hardly matters - the joy here is in the witty dialogue and the comedic possibilities in almost every exchange.

Rickman and Duncan arriving at the British Independent Film Awards in 1999
Strong sexual chemistry between the two actors
In this new West End production, directed by Howard Davies, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan turn in wonderfully energetic performances as the hedonistic and selfish couple.

Davies has directed the pair as lovers before in his production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1985.

The sexual chemistry between them is a delight to watch and they both bring a depth to their seemingly superficial characters, which could easily be lost amidst the numerous farcical scenarios.

Conversely, Sybil and Victor are boring and insipid victims (Coward himself described them as "poor things, little better than ninepins, lightly wooden, and only there at all in order to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again").

By making Sybil and Victor so unlikeable, Coward is pushing us to root for the self-obssessed, puerile, immoral and melodramatic Elyot and Amanda, who, let's face it, are a damn sight more fun.

While the audience may cringe at the all too familiar petty fighting that accompanies love/hate relationships, most of us would probably like to experience such a passion at least once in our lives, even if it proved ultimately unsustainable.

Alan Rickman last appeared in the West End in 1991
Rickman sings Someday I'll Find You
Indeed, Sybil and Victor become a lot more interesting at the end of the play, when a clever inversion of events sees them squabbling fiercely as Elyot and Amanda quietly sneak out of the door.

Fielding and Godley are gloriously deadpan at times, but know how to pull out all the hysterical stops when needs be.

But whilst the frenzied fighting amongst both couples is entertaining to watch, it does become tiresome after a while, especially after two acts of Elyot and Amanda's self-indulgence.

The director's efforts to play up the serious and poignant moments amid the unrepentant stream of comedy is a shrewd move to endear us to the star-crossed lovers.

The haunting duet Someday I'll Find You highlights the loneliness that can be felt despite or because of being in a relationship, and you cannot help but feel sorry for them for the duration of the song.

At the risk of sounding like a moralist though, it is not quite enough to stop these two flawed human beings becoming quite irritating on occasion.

Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor quibble about a performance that had the audience in fits of laughter from start to finish and opened with rapturous applause in appreciation of the magnificent sloping Art Nouveau set.

Unlike Amanda's insightful comment - "this is far too perfect to last" - Private Lives was a highly enjoyable night out. But by the end, I was glad to leave the warring couples to their predictable fate.

Private Lives is on at the Albery Theatre in London until 6 January 2002.

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