THEATRE REVIEW: Private Lives pithy without the stiffy

Diana Donnelly and John Ullyatt in Private Lives

Diana Donnelly and John Ullyatt in Private Lives

The Citadel Theatre’s version of Private Lives by Noel Coward should be prescribed by doctors to treat depression. To quote a gentleman sitting three rows back from me on opening night, “Wow, there is nothing quite like a good laugh.”

My sentiments exactly.

Having being written in 1930 and last produced in Edmonton in 1986, it is surprising how contemporary the content is – a story of two exes who run into each other on honeymoons with respective new spouses. Some of the script was hard to hear over the uproarious laughter that John Ullyatt (Elyot) and Diana Donnelly (Amanda) drew from the audience. Their performance was like watching two best friends play a game of who can be the funniest. At times, Donnelly couldn’t help but laugh at Ullyat, with her getting the best of him at ties as well. The Englishness of it all, done just to the cusp of over-the-top, was melodious and refreshing. It was just the right amount of pithy, without the stiffy.

Jeff Meadows and Genevieve Fleming were excellent straight men to Ullyatt’s and Donnelly’s comedic geysers. Excellent choices for Vincent and Sibyl, you didn’t know whether to pity them or give a nod as to how they deserve the abuse given by the natural powers of Elyot and Amanda. It was as if living in their world was infectious and the ridiculousness they created was enabled by Vincent/Sibyl’s blind ideologies. As an example, the maid Louise (played candidly by Cat Walsh), seemed never to be drawn into the upside down world of Elyot and Amanda because she only spoke French; as if not being able to communicate was some sort of force field. Her hilariously over descriptive and perfectly frustrated French allowed her to be the only character in the whole production who seemed to live in another world.

The set is a wonderment. The first act had a simple, functioning vista of two balconies that set the table for the second and third acts. Upon the raising of the curtain for the second, there were audible gasps from the audience. An interactive and comedic tool, the stage was a thorough landscape for the actors to use at their disposal. Without getting too descriptive in hopes to not give it away, there are certain special effects that, in a play such as Private Lives, sounds weird to say out loud, but they are useful, necessary and as opulent as the play would demand.

Aside from some opening night hiccups, the show was a thorough enjoyment. Ullyatt and Donnelly were astoundingly delightful. It is quite possible that they could read a list of infectious diseases from plague era England and I would have to ask them to stop so I could catch my breath from laughing so hard. At the same time, Coward’s words are not without thoughtfulness. His views on womanhood can only be described as modern, as Amanda is a liberated and confident soul who exasperates Elyot with her strength. It is also about themselves as people doing horrible things to others. Some of the lines that got the biggest laughs were between Elyot and Amanda as they contemplated their predicament:

Amanda: Do you realise that we’re living in sin?

Elyot: Not according to the Catholics, Catholics don’t recognise divorce. We’re married as much as ever we were.

Amanda: Yes, dear, but we’re not Catholics.

Elyot: Never mind, it’s nice to think they’d sort of back us up.

This is a play that draws out the type of laughter that is refreshing, and along with the terrific cast, Private Lives is an example of how an audience and a production can meet in the middle; it is about recognizing moments and laughing with relief – as we all wish we could – when we reflect on our most absurd moment that happened in our own private lives.

The play runs until Feb. 24 on the Citadel Theatre’s Shoctor Stage.

From left: John Ullyatt, Genevieve Fleming and Jeff Meadows in Private Lives

From left: John Ullyatt, Genevieve Fleming and Jeff Meadows in Private Lives

 Photos by David Cooper