Laughter still left in Playhouse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 1999, 12:00am

WHAT happens when one of a partnership dies? Does the one who is left still laugh? Noel Coward's domestic musings had particular poignancy at the Conrad Playhouse, when the show went on for the first time without its founder, British actor Derek Nimmo, who died in March, much-missed.

His dinner theatre toured Asia and the Middle East for more than 20 years: in some ways eating four rich courses then pushing back your chair to enjoy well-known British actors performing British comedy is curiously out-dated. But it is also often curiously enjoyable.

Coward wrote Private Lives in 1930. In seven decades neither its humour nor its message have dimmed.

Life is strange: there you are celebrating a new start with Martinis on a nice hotel balcony, and there is the past landing with a messy thud of olive stones in the room next door.

In Private Lives domestic arrangements are both shaken and stirred when a honeymoon couple starting out on their second marriage discover their former spouses are also on honeymoon in the room next to theirs in a Deauville hotel.

Eliot and Amanda - played by the debonair Christopher Cazenove and the ever-sparky Marsha Fitzalan - have both married 'nice' people the second time around. Jane Robbins, as Sybil, is Eliot's new bride, and Andrew Charleson is terribly nice as Amanda's young fogey of a husband, Victor.

But domestic bliss turns into domestic blitzkrieg when the new couples meet by chance, and end up together in an apartment in Paris, where old arguments and old passions are rekindled with equal intensity.

The dialogue nicely captures those moments where everything important happens beneath the surface of trivial conversation.

What do you say, over the croissants and cafe au lait, when your new spouse has just run off with their old spouse without even having the courtesy of consummating the marriage? Robbins as newlywed Sybil ('don't quibble, Sybil') whines and preens her way convincingly through her honeymoon tragedy, while Charleson is bumbling and honourable as Victor.

Fiona Ross makes the most of her cameo role as the grumpy housemaid Louise, speaking abusively in French to anyone who will listen. Her accent might not deceive a Parisian, but she does wonders with a baguette.

In its Noel-Coward-Over-The-Top way, this is one of the best Conrad playhouses I have seen. Derek Nimmo would have enjoyed it.

Private Lives Conrad Playhouse Conrad Hotel Ballroom, until May 16