Penelope Keith stars as Amanda in this TV version of the famed Noel Coward play, following a long list of actresses famous for playing the role, from Gertrude Lawrence to Tallulah Bankhead to Norma Shearer. Key to Amanda's allure is in her quick and bitchy wit. Keith captures that essence in spades. Her Amanda slinks around in satin gowns and silky pajamas, shows a lot of cleavage, and takes no prisoners. She demolishes her honeymoon husband (Donald Pickering) as well as Elyot's new wife (Polly Adams) as if they were made of papier mache.
Her only real and equal partner is her previous husband Elyot, here played by Alec McCowen. At their cores, Elyot and Amanda are two sides of one upper-crust coin. They are equals in venom as well as venomous wit. McCowen, sadly, is miscast as Elyot. He's not equal to Keith's mercurial mood changes, cannot match her exceptional elocution, and is not her equal in stature. You almost expect Keith to borrow a line from another well-known work and tell Elyot, "You're too short for that gesture." He also has bad teeth.
On stage, perhaps this casting would have worked, but for a TV production with lots of close-ups, McCowen does not measure up. And while Keith is not beauty in the Hollywood manner, she easily manages to project class, allure, and sex while hardly batting an eye.
Still, this is not a production to be sneezed at. The wit and bile of Coward shine through the raised martini glasses with all their intended razor sharpness. And few actresses of her generation can wear haughtiness with such style.
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