It is undoubtedly the mark of an excellent play that 85 years after it was written it can still excite and surprise not just audiences, but the actors starring in it too.
This is the case with Private Lives, Noël Coward’s tale of a divorced couple, Amanda and Elyot, who find themselves in adjacent hotel suites when on honeymoon with their new spouses. What are the chances?
“I’ve been a huge fan of Coward for many years,” leading man Tom Chambers tells Stage Review.
“When I got the script it read like a piece of music. The way it depicts the intricacies of love, marriage and relationships just made me smile all the way through reading it and I couldn’t wait to get started.
“It’s like a train that doesn’t stop but occasionally just jumps onto another track and heads off in a different direction.
“It’s so current as well, which might surprise those who have never seen or read it before,” the former Strictly Come Dancing winner continues.
“Having been married now for several years, when I first read the script I thought it could be any boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. It feels like it’s dialogue I could have said last week.”
While I hope he hasn’t uttered ‘I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe’, as his character Elyot does, the theme of passionate fiery relationships and uncontrollable attraction are indeed universal and timeless.
“Our secret weapon is our director Tom Attenborough,” Chambers explains. “He’s very good at knowing how something really should be and not letting it slip into falsehood.
“We are ensuring that it is as meaningful and truthful as it should be. And such fun too. It’s very funny and very vibrant and it looks gorgeous, just like 1930’s Paris should do.”
Starring alongside Chambers as his new wife, Sybil, is Call The Midwife and Fresh Meat star Charlotte Ritchie.
“It’s fun playing awful, horrible people. I did start by playing Sybil as just a pain. She does become a bit of a pain, actually, but possibly for the very good reason of being left on her wedding night.
“I was heading straight down the road of seeing how ridiculous I could make her, but this production is much cleverer than that. Tom Attenborough has put a big emphasis on playing the characters as if you actually believe they could be well-functioning couples before Elyot and Amanda meet each other again.”
Ritchie, who also stars in BBC3 comedy Siblings, describes Sybil as a “sheltered” soul and “quite conservative. She finds a bit more of her own spirit as she’s inspired by the others.”
“The surprise with Elyot,” says Chambers, “is that he’s not calculating. He just exists in this decadent charming lifestyle of being spoilt because money is not something of importance. He doesn’t sugar-coat anything.”
“It’s a rare opportunity to see the UK and the place you live,” says Ritchie, as we talk about taking the show out on the road. “I think it’s a special thing to go on tour. It was one of my biggest hopes that I could do a play on tour. I’ve always wanted to. It feels like a rite of passage, something really fun to do.”
“I just like all the different vibes everywhere you go,” Chambers, who starred in musical hit Top Hat both in the West End and on tour, chips in.
With a cast of five and a small team around them Private Lives is, he says, “more of a family tour than some big circus trip. And it’s lovely that it’s a nine-and-a-half week tour; it’s not like it’s three years on the road as a drummer in a rock band! And we’re visiting some fantastic cities and beautiful theatres too.”
Chambers’ fame rose to that of near rock band levels when he starred in and won the sixth series of Strictly Come Dancing, wowing audiences and judges with his foxtrot and salsa skills.
Such was his impact that seven years on he was back on the Strictly Dance floor Christmas 2015, scoring a perfect 40 points for his Charleston, a dance he had hankered after since missing out on it previously.
“I simply couldn’t do it,” says Ritchie definitively. “If the time is right I can dance, but I can’t do routines and I couldn’t have cameras in my face all day every day.
“The whole thing that’s nice about being an actor is you don’t have to be yourself. Ever. My friend Helen [George], who’s in Call The Midwife with me, has just finished Strictly.
“I think she’s incredible for just keeping her cool and not giving too much away. I would never be as good as Helen, neither are my legs longer than the TV screen; I think she’s ruined it for everyone else on Call The Midwife because no-one can ever really top that.”
Yet professional theatre work is a new beast for her. Since getting her big acting break in Fresh Meat, the university-set comedy from the writers of Peep Show, Ritchie’s acting credits have been universally for the screen.
“I feel incredibly inexperienced. Theatre involves a completely different way of doing things. There are so many more technical things that you have to think about. I think I’m going to learn a lot, which is good.”
2016 Tour Dates
February 1-6, Theatre Royal Brighton, Brighton February 8-13, New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham February 15-20, Richmond Theatre, Richmond February 22-27, Theatre Royal Glasgow, Glasgow February 29-March 5, Princess Theatre Torquay, Torquay March 7-12, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury