Private Lives/Malvern Theatres

THE mellifluous notes of Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet weave their way along this plush hotel’s corridors, providing the perfect musical metaphor to accompany one of Noel Coward’s best-loved works.

It’s 1930 so the jazz legend’s Singin’ The Blues fits this piece like a posh lady’s evening glove. The feel of that faraway decade is instantly summoned, a musical scene-setter par excellence.

Nearly 90 years have elapsed since this comedy of manners was first staged but the theme is timeless, mainly because nothing has changed in that eternal battle of the sexes.

It may well be that the frivolous lives of those well-heeled, perpetual hedonists of the inter-war years might confuse or irritate a contemporary audience. However, if this were the case, then the point would have been spectacularly missed

And that’s because of the fact that while fashions may change, human nature most certainly does not.

The plot revolves around the relatively simple device of what happens when two honeymoon couples find themselves next door to each other in the same hotel.

This shouldn’t pose any problems ordinarily. But this is no ordinary tale because the trouble is that one of the newly-wed wives suddenly finds that she is the former lover of the newly-wed husband in the adjoining room.

This discovery proves to be not so much a storm in a teacup rather a catastrophe in a cocktail glass. And from then on, married bliss turns into the nuptials from Hell.

Jack Hardwick as Elyot Chase is ideal as the bounder with the boundless beastliness, while his simpering bride Sibyl (Olivia Beardsley) remains steadfastly blind to the fact that she’s hitched herself up to an utter cad.

So it’s not long before the whole marital morass starts to break loose like lava pouring down the slopes of an active volcano, the voices getting evermore shrill in that uniquely upper class way.

And excelling in the squawking department is Helen Keeley as the flighty but ruthless Amanda Prynne, who regards the sport of sexual politics as being of no more significance or importance than a game of tiddley-winks or snail-racing.

Sadly, the biggest loser in this menage a quatre is the tragically duped Victor Prynne (Kieran Buckeridge), a brylcreemed and chinless wonder who does just that… wonders why it all ended before it had even started.

Private Lives reputedly only took four days to write, rolling off Coward’s pen as he lay sick propped up in bed during a trip to China. But despite the passage of the years, this masterpiece of wit and observation effortlessly retains its freshness and relevance. It runs until Saturday (September 9).

John Phillpott