True tribute to the Master's talent to amuse

Private Lives

By Noel Coward. Directed by Ralph Myers. Belvoir Theatre. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. Until November 24

Reviewer: Peter Wilkins

In London theatre circles, Noel Coward was known as the Master. It is easy to see why in Belvoir Theatre's production of his classic comedy of manners, Private Lives, being performed at The Playhouse. Director Ralph Myers' production is a furiously funny, fast and fitting tribute to the Master's scintillating wit, biting satire and stinging observance of the nature of love. With a stellar cast of the calibre of Toby Schmitz as the self-absorbed Elyot, Zahra Newman as the feisty and free-spirited Amanda, Eloise Mignon as a deliciously flighty Sybil and Toby Truslove as the staid and conservative Victor, Myers whips up an entertaining evening's cocktail of laughter and delight. Zoe Coombs-Marr completes the quintet with just the right touch of French surliness as the maid, Louise. Myers' cast is ideally suited to thrust Coward's 1930 combat of love into the 21st century.

In a 1963 diary entry, Coward remarks that Private Lives has finally been recognised as a good play. The plot is cleverly and concisely constructed, deliberately tracing the passage of love's foibles from passionate ardour and restrained sophistication to chaotic aggression and explosive reliance. Elyot, now married to Sybil, encounters former wife Amanda, now married to Victor, in a honeymoon hotel on the French Riviera. What ensues is a turbulent escapade of rekindled love, ignited friction and the discovery that the course of true love never will run smooth. Private Lives is a love story, a roller coaster ride of emotional need and rocky dependence. Myers orchestrates the production's moments of frantic farce, with interludes of contemplation of Coward's more reflective notions of the nature of love.

Purists are advised to leave their preconceptions at home. Rather than setting his production on elegant adjoining balconies of a luxurious Riviera hotel, Myers presents a flat white wall with doors that are used to perfect advantage to play out the farce that flavours the sheer pace, cueing and timing of performance and dialogue. This is no saccharine sweet attempt at imitation. True to Coward's intent, it is a sharp and witty observation of the universal volatility of relationships.

Myers has wisely decided to run the three acts together without intervals and with only lighting changes to denote the passage of time or change of scene. Belvoir's Private Lives offers a contemporary revival of Coward's comic masterpiece for a modern Australian audience. On opening night, as if having seen their own reflection in the glass, the audience clapped, cheered and whistled with delight. That is the true tribute to the Master's self-proclaimed ''talent to amuse''.