With Valentine’s Day a few days away, Edmonton lovers have a tantalizing, if not necessarily uplifting way to test their notions of true romance.
The Citadel Theatre’s production of Private Lives revels in Noel Coward’s effervescently caustic wit, but artistic director Bob Baker has a cast also able to convincingly show the nastier side of love that Coward exposes in this Depression-era comedy.
The promise of any Private Lives production begins with Coward’s words, of course, but the amorous combatants, Elyot and Amanda, must have a chemistry that captures both the glib sophistication and the acidic observations of Coward’s play as flesh-and-blood characters, not just as the playwright’s messengers. The stars of this show have that chemistry.
John Ullyatt and Diana Donnelly play Elyot and Amanda, who were once married to each other and are now remarried and on their honeymoons at the same French hotel with their new spouses.
Ullyatt reveals Elyot’s unbridled approach to male-female relations early as Elyot and his new wife, Sibyl, discuss dinner plans on their hotel balcony. Sibyl (Genevieve Fleming) gratingly interrogates Elyot about his first marriage to Amanda. We learn early that Elyot is not a patient or a nice man, and Ullyatt made Elyot’s fundamental dislike for this woman he has just married palpable, but still amusing. Elyot has an unexpected warning for the prying Sybil; he tells his bride that if she doesn’t drop the subject of Amanda, he should like “to cut off [her] head with a meat axe.” Remember, they are on their honeymoon! Ullyatt got the humour and the menace just right in this early indication of his character.
Amanda eventually turns up on the adjacent balcony and learns the awkward honeymoon coincidence from Elyot. By the end of Act 1, Elyot and Amanda are irrepressibly in love again, and they run away to Amanda’s Paris apartment, leaving their new, bewildered partners behind.
The second act oscillates between tender embraces and flaring tempers, both of which the principals made consistently funny, until all good humour evaporated and previously constrained hostilities turned violent. The act ended explosively, literally. The spectacularly destructive finish was surprising and hilarious. Credit goes to the stage designer Leslie Frankish for that bit of unexpected fireworks and for the posh-looking art deco love nest where the lovers’ quarrel percolates and finally erupts.
Ullyatt and Donnelly have qualities this Coward play needs – leading-man and leading-lady good looks, and physical and emotional versatility. Ullyatt, especially, took charge of the escalating situation in Act 2, injecting boyish silliness and almost psychotic impulsiveness into the scenes, steering the second act’s gradual deterioration toward a satisfyingly chaotic conclusion.
He also found a nice balance between playing Amanda’s emotional and physical opponent, and the charming man she can’t live without. Ullyatt moved from tender to brittle to unflappable to maniacal with perfect rhythmic control, all the while delivering Coward’s inimitably entertaining lines with impeccable comic timing.
The secondary characters, Sibyl and Victor (Jeff Meadows), are written to be uninteresting exemplars of normalcy and propriety, so pity somewhat the actors assigned to these insipid parts. Fleming’s first- and last-act duties call for an ability to be irritatingly cloying and then for some old-fashioned oh-woe-is-me pathos, and she met the challenge well enough.
Victor gets some action in the third act when he challenges the cad Elyot to a fistfight. Meadows did a nice job of maintaining Victor’s stiff-upper-lip British demeanour while flirting with some unbecoming anger. The role is a cipher, but Meadows made the most of it.