THEY DO NOT GROW OLD AS WE IN THE STALLS GROW OLD
May as well tell you, last week I had the ultimate pensioner experience, and it was a blast. A midweek, senior-price matinee in staid Richmond for the new touring production of Private Lives (no idea when press night might be is for Christopher Luscombe’s long delayed production, it’s been to Bath already anyway. I just bought tickets for curiosity).
The curiosity was because Nigel Havers and Patricia Hodge are more than double the age Coward wrote Elyot and Amanda to be: 70 and 75. That is getting on, even these days, for a runaway romance with old flames, abandoning two new spouses in a Deauville hotel on their honeymoon and subsequently breaking things over one another’s heads in a Paris hideaway.
But goodness, it works. Pensioners ain’t what they used to be, as the matinee audience absolutely knew, and there was much chortling at every bicker and making-up. Love is love at any age, but we all fell about with a particular glee at the gloriously recognisable way that when Amanda turns down Elyot’s lovemaking on the sofa on the grounds that they’ve had a heavy meal, he gets up miffed but is caught by a sudden leg cramp. The only flaw is that the “five years” separation in the text ought to be rewritten , with the Coward Estate’s permission, as twenty five . Just for realism. Otherwise the fact is that play fits the quarrelsome exasperated affections of middle age quite perfectly..
Of course both players are sharp and brilliant comedians. Havers gets a roar of applause on his first balcony appearance, probably because way beyond the stage he is beloved for his stellar performance as the octogenarian Audrey’s dodgy paramour in Coronation Street. But he always gives good cad-and-charmer, and here he is glorious: from the first panicky twitch of his smart blazer when he spots Amanda on the next balcony, to a peerless demonstration of how to eat a brioche with maximum impertinence in the final scene. And Hodge is his equal. She does look near to her age (well, to the most impossibly-chic versiont of it) but in her striped pyjamas is sexier than many a younger women in her devil-may-care recklessness. And the pair achieve the fight, the smashing of a record over his head, and the lounging and the reconciling. All done magnificently, lithe as well-preserved panthers. It’s a joy, sparking Oohs and aahs and giggles and barks of laughter all the way. Matinee idols both. Respect.
One thought did wistfully come to me in the first scene. Simon Higlett’s design is fabulous – especially the Paris flat, very arty-twenties – but in the first scene there are two other hotel balconies, looking functional, above the principals’ ones. I sort of wanted another pair of couples – maybe their far younger selves – to appear ghostlike up there, maybe even speak an amazed line or two, meta-style, about how strange and wonderful it is that we all grow old yet never change…
Touring: Chichester on Tuesday, then onward till 23 April www.noelcoward.com for details