Noel Coward’s popular comedy showcasing a vicious battle of the (s)exes gets its dark heart exposed this week at the OFS by the new ElevenOneTheatre production company.

Two newlywed couples, (Amanda and Victor, Sybil and Elyot) are staying in the same hotel, enjoying their respective honeymoons. The twist is that Elyot (Jonathan Webb) and Amanda (Jenni Middleton) used to be married to each other and have, quite coincidentally, found their paths colliding. Amanda and Elyot become highly aware very quickly of each other’s presence. The other halves Victor (Alistair Nunn) and Sybil (Rachel Johnson) are left seemingly, and initially, helpless and floundering, as the divorcees ensuing actions, and the chaos these actions cause, become the backbone of this three act piece.

It’s possible to enjoy the play for its considerable wit and wonderful dialogue, however you’d be missing half of Noel Coward’s skill. In some ways a prelude to Edward Albee’s excoriating Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Private Lives hides its deeply troubling relationship ruminations under an increasingly thinning layer of humorous drawing room farce and frippery. At the centre is the thesis that, at least for these people, love and desire are not enough for a harmonious relationship. The play’s proposed alternative, of practicality, is seen to similarly problematic, and, likewise, impossible.

Central to a Coward play is the delivery of the rhythmic lines, and the cast nail this on the head. Particularly good is Middleton’s Amanda; the character is a glamorous, but preening peacock-like, figure whose self-absorption is quite breathtaking, and Middleton’s performance imbues all of this with a likeability which enhances the play’s delicious moral ambivalence. All of the actors fare well, however, and as the week-long run continues, their confidence levels will increase, giving them more focus on the shades of grey they also need to complete the characters.

Although the play does drag a little in its third act (something, I imagine, few productions could do much about), Private Lives provides ElevenOneTheatre an excellent first opportunity, and one they confront with enthusiasm and considerable talent.