Private Lives; King Lear; Ghost Stories | Theatre review

Coward's classic comedy sparkles and soars, a steely King Lear swirls with robust performances – and a spooky new play elicits a gasp from the stalls

Not so much sex in the city as badinage on the balcony. The casting of Kim Cattrall opposite Matthew Macfadyen has made Richard Eyre's production of Private Lives a very public occasion, and a lustrous one. Not, though, without perils. The unflagging glitter of Coward's play can easily become a study of strangled vowels and glaciating looks. It can be as flat as Norfolk.

Not here, it isn't. Eyre's production, constantly shifting and alive, soars beyond silky comedy. Above all, it shows a quartet of characters lit up by an unexpected mixture of calculation and brutal instinct. When Cattrall's Amanda first hears her ex-husband's voice drawl out from an adjacent balcony, she slyly checks him out in the mirror of her powder compact: when they come face to face, she gives a faux start of surprise. When Lisa Dillon's Sybil rubs her new husband's stomach – she's a preening wifey wanting to assert her new power – Macfadyen pushes away those dear little paws, as casually as if she were the kitten he calls her. Simon Paisley Day as the other husband, Victor, a long, persuasive streak of self-importance, is a man who even when he's not smoking a pipe emits complacent puffing noises.

Noël Coward's 1930 play is remarkable for the baleful eye which Coward turned on heterosexual romance: this is the comedy in which the husband declares that some women should be "struck regularly, like gongs". It's astonishing as a piece of machinery: within three-quarters of an hour a divorced couple, meeting each other while honeymooning with new partners, have rediscovered love and run off together, gliding from one state to the other as easily as if they've merely poured themselves another cocktail. And it's bold. Amid all the sparkling languor of its dialogue, Coward dropped a frank disdain for conventional pieties, and a depth-charge of music. A whole history of sweetness and melancholy is carried in the songs at which Amanda and Elyot sneer: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."

Eyre's production pulls off both gorgeousness – Cattrall curls up, sloe-eyed, in a velvet dressing gown – and slapstick: the mayhem in a Paris apartment leads to exciting spouts from Rob Howell's ingeniously designed multi-tiered aquarium. It shows glamour turning into panic: the gauze curtains in front of which the couples pose to show off their loveliness become, as they try to escape from each other, terrible entangling snares. And it shows actors who are at their peak when piqued. Cattrall is as acerbic as she is alluring: she mouths the word "Sybil" as if she were saying "toilet". Macfadyen wears bullying smugness like a cashmere coat. As for Lisa Dillon, a simperer on the point of turning sour, this confirms her as an actress capable of doing anything, who disappears entirely into each part.

Jon Bausor's design for King Lear could be the setting for Endgame: a blackened arena with cracked window panes, dangling lights that fizz, and a jagged hole at the back of the stage as if some fiend has just leapt through the wall. Jon Clark's lighting washes all of David Farr's production in a dark, swirling mist, save – with a sad and clever irony – the scene in which Geoffrey Freshwater's very good, clubbable Gloucester is blinded. As his eyeball is flipped casually out of its socket and on to the boards, the stage glows as if it were a smithy.

This industrial dereliction provides a natural background for Greg Hicks's impressive Lear. The capoeira-practising actor is more urban fox than wild wolf. In madness, he has something of the forked animal about him, not because he's raw or bellowing but because he's smooth as a snake. He can move across the stage as though closing in on some quivering piece of prey; his face doesn't so much crumble as jump from one expression to another, as if he were putting on a series of masks. He even looks at home with a Carmen Miranda-style arrangement of foliage on his head. He is from the beginning his own Fool, a harsh court jester. He sweeps in with a sardonic cackle, bestowing himself on his followers from an unexpected direction; he mouths Goneril's suck-up words as she speaks them.

Alongside this steely intelligence, Kathryn Hunter's Fool is lovely because he/she/it is so childlike – a pre-sexual, white-faced scrap of a creature who sometimes preens around like a spoilt favourite and sometimes huddles up to Lear like a tear-stained infant. It might not have been a trick too far to have doubled the part with that other hanged darling, Cordelia, who Samantha Young rescues from the danger of being a sap: she is bold-faced and almost frighteningly full of zeal.

There are mistakes. Allowing King Lear to appear on a drip at the end of the evening is one of them; his clambering in the storm on to something that might be the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is another. Tunji Kasim's Edmund is mouthy and bland. The mixing of khaki and modern nurses' uniforms with robes and coxcombs doesn't so much proclaim the play a timeless drama as look like a muddle.

Still, this most broken-up and jagged of Shakespeare's tragedies can withstand a certain amount of muddle. As it does here, thanks to its steely core, and to robust supporting performances: Darrell D'Silva is a warm and explosive Kent; Kelly Hunter is striking as a white-faced, wheedling Goneril. And Farr makes the scenes cut into each other like cleavers.

Scary theatre doesn't happen often enough. Ghost Stories doesn't feature high-grade spectres, as does the long-running Woman in Black. Rather, its stories – featuring a night watchman in the small hours, a man alone in the forest at night, and a nursery in which there's something a bit funny in the cot – star horror spooks, with one nasty dangling thingy and one chilling appearance by an eerie small person. Still, Jeremy Dyson brings his League of Gentlemen's drollness and Andy Nyman his magician's sleight-of-hand to the script, so that you hear a sound you rarely hear in the stalls: a gasp. Not enough of those yet, but a start.

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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