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A millennial take on a period play

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The key challenge: Private Lives director John Mitchell, right, with Laurence McNaughton whose character, Elyot, discovers on his honeymoon that his room is adjacent to that of his ex-wife and her new spouse. At right are Mitchell, McNaughton and Julia Pitt (Photograph supplied)

Daylesford Theatre was full for the opening night of Private Lives, Noël Coward’s classic comedy of manners — or, as he described it, bad manners — that debuted in 1930.

Back projection was used by the show’s director John Mitchell to good effect, showing the exchange of text messages between divorced couple Amanda (Julia Pitt) and Elyot (Laurence McNaughton) once they realised they were honeymooning in the same hotel with their present partners Victor (Owain Johnston Barnes) and Sybil (Liana Hall).

The use of texting and selfies immediately suggested we were in for a millennial take on this period play. That the audience were able to see the private texting gave added contemporary irony to the play’s title.

The dialogue, witty and occasionally memorable, was always slightly snide.

Elyot described the “chemistry” of his previous marriage as “nasty acids in a matrimonial bottle” and on hearing the song Someday I’ll Find You, said, “Isn’t it funny how potent cheap music is?”

So after such banter, how could we believe that the attraction between Amanda and Elyot was so powerful they would simply ditch their new spouses and elope to Amanda’s flat in Paris? I couldn’t, but elope they did.

In the second act, the pace started to slow and, apart from an Alexa speaker, contemporary technology made no appearance.

Private Lives was back to being firmly a 1930s period piece. Use of technology turned out to be more gimmick than an essential adjunct to modern life.

In its day, Private Lives was always a highly artificial, mannered play. The main problem?

The only way to convincingly portray artificiality and staged manners is to not be aware of them.

The key challenge for actors in any comedy is to treat it with the utmost seriousness. They must never behave as if they know they are being funny. Once they do, they are not funny.

All four principals valiantly fought, but lost this battle mainly because of their use of repetitive gestures and facial expressions.

As a result, they were mostly stilted and unconvincing. A last word belongs to the long-suffering French maid, Louise (Evie MacGregor) who can only try to behave normally in the wreckage muttering “Ils sont fous, ces Anglais ...”

• Private Lives continues at 8pm at Daylesford from Thursday to Saturday. Tickets, $35, at ptix.bm and Daylesford one hour before performances

Utmost seriousness: Private Lives director John Mitchell (right) with Laurence McNaughton and Julia Pitt, a divorced couple who find out they are staying in adjacent hotel rooms while on honeymoon with their new partners