Can she or can’t she? Most of the first-night audience were secretly betting Kim Cattrall wouldn’t be able to shake off the shadow of ‘Samantha Jones’ from ‘Sex and the City’ and turn herself into Noel Coward’s wittiest and most romantic heroine.

In assailing the best-constructed comedy in the English Language as well as the first to openly portray sexual attraction, Cattrall sets herself the highest of bars: Private Lives has pin-sharp dialogue which falls flat if a syllable is mistimed, her predecessors in the role include Maggie Smith, Greta Scacchi, and Lindsay Duncan, and the whole play balances on the essential chemistry between the co-stars, reunited divorcees on their respective honeymoons who are supposed to be fatally attracted “like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle”.

This version is more like the YouTube experiment wherein Cattrall is the Diet Coke – fizzy, colourful, sweet but ultimately not ‘the real thing’, and harmless until Matthew MacFadyen provides the Mentos which make the explosive effervescence.

Eschewing the archness with which Elyot is normally played, MacFadyen opts for an earthier, butcher foil to Amanda’s shrillness and once you accept the famous Coward epigrams won’t be delivered with camp theatrical flourishes, his conversational delivery adds depth and credibility to the character, and makes it more magnetic.

Despite looking the part and staring down any discussion of their age differences, Cattrall doesn’t quite match him – hers is a performance with circus skills: when Elyot shoves her she bounces on to the sofa in an acrobatic parabola. She also walks the tight-rope of English diction: never actually falling but the strain is visible. It might have made for a more laconic and nuanced Amanda if she’d played it in her natural American accent.

Casting the new partners, Sybil and Victor, is notoriously difficult: the parts are written as ciphers, but Simon Paisley-Day gave Victor a chocks-away Squadron Leader background Coward clearly hadn’t envisaged, and in the third-act face-off with MacFadyen provided one of the best comic moments.

There are some issues with the set – in the first act on adjoining hotel balconies, the cast had to fight their way through muslin curtains or round tightly-placed wrought-iron furniture, and in the second act Amanda’s Paris apartment looked cheap and gimmicky instead of coolly art deco and stylish. In Coward, style really is everything.

Private Lives continues at the Vaudeville Theatre at least until May, with performances Monday-Friday at 7.30pm and Matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Box Office 0870 890 1101. Tickets are £25-£65 plus agency fees.

Image by Nobby Clark

Londonist Originally published on Londonist