The world needs more people like Nigel Havers. After a long and successful career on stage and screen the actor is still taking risks, setting up a theatre company in the middle of a pandemic and launching it with a play and a role familiar to many but completely new to him.
The Nigel Havers Theatre Company launches with a national tour of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. And after some covid-related rescheduling it arrives at the Lowry, a stone’s throw away from the set of Coronation Street where he recently played Lewis Archer.
As an actor, Havers is a sure box office draw. Even on a Tuesday night, when Manchester United are at home, the Lowry’s huge Lyric Theatre is almost full. When he first appears on stage there is a surge of energy in the audience, as they only just resist the urge to cheer. After two years of covid restrictions theatregoers are ready to enjoy themselves and this comedy, with Havers in the driving seat, hits pitch perfect.
Born out of serious times, Coward’s look at high society and its romantic relationships was considered flippant when it first opened in 1930. That flippancy is just the tonic right now. Coward’s genius is in creating overblown caricatures who give us recognisable truisms about the human condition, and the resonating laughter shows these observations are just as relevant today as they were almost 100 years ago.
The play opens with a balcony scene in the South of France where two newly married couples have just arrived on honeymoon. For one half of each couple this is their second time around but little do they know, on the opposite side of the balcony, their ex is celebrating too. What follows is bound to be explosive, and it is, in the most comical way.
Elyot and Amanda are the typical can’t live with them can’t live without them couple. Their relationship while married was passionate and volatile. After a swift cocktail, to calm the nerves, it seems nothing has changed – except now there are two other people in the mix.
Although as suave and charming as ever, at age 70 you might think Havers too old to pull off the part of Elyot; after all Coward was less than half this age when he premiered the role. But middle-age and second honeymoons aren’t what they used to be. And when coupled with 75-year-old Patricia Hodge as his ex-wife, the pair bring a delightfully modern twist to this classic comedy, while keeping the action clearly set in the early 20th century.
Hodge is another box office winner, having won her popular comedy stripes as Miranda’s mum, Penny in the BBC sitcom. It is a rare treat to see two of the country’s finest actors’ work up close. Together they deliver Coward’s barbed witticisms in masterclass of timing that is terrific to watch.
Simon Higlett’s crimson red setting for Amanda’s Parisian flat adds to the claustrophobic intensity of the second and third acts. The couple’s fiery emotions sometimes spill over into Tom and Jerry type violence that plays differently today. At one point there is an audible gasp from the crowd, but the pair quickly pull them back with the farcical cartoon nature of this physical humour.
There is not a weak link in the performance with Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as ‘Victor’, Natalie Walter as ‘Sibyl’ and Aïcha Kossoko as ‘Louise’ offering strong support. As the company’s inaugural show it is a triumph – frivolous, hilarious, and injected with Haver’s dazzling passion for life that is infectious. Don’t miss it.
Private Lives is at The Lowry, Salford from 15-19 March 2022