IT is hard to imagine, but when Private Lives was first staged back in 1930, the “love scenes” in the second act were considered very risqué and only narrowly missed being censored by The Lord Chamberlain.

Oh, how times have changed!

A comedy of manners – ill manners, at that – together with bickering, arguments and full-blown fights, this is Noel Coward’s re-ignition of a love that turned sour.

At Malvern it is a sumptuous, sophisticated delight, thanks to the casting of Patricia Hodge and Nigel Havers.

Such is their esteem that their entrances brought murmurs of appreciation from the first night audience.

And what better pairs of hands in which to entrust this timeless period piece. It is perfect casting. They sing. They dance. They flirt. They are a joy to watch.

The pair are Amanda and Elyot, battered divorcees from a volatile marriage who find themselves honeymooning with new – and younger – partners, in adjoining suites at a hotel in northern France. Their meeting triggers the realisation that they should never have gone their separate ways, but ridden out the turbulent storms of being Mr and Mrs - and so they decide to do something about it...

The dialogue is clipped and brittle, its delivery perfectly precise and old style BBC RP.

The premise of the play may be somewhat far-fetched but it is entertaining through and through thanks in great part to the luminary performances of Hodge and Havers.

She revels in Coward’s waspish words, dismissing those around her with the mere hint of a look. We all know that he can corner the market in charm but here, in an instant, he is able to turn it on its head and lash out with vindictive bile. Hodge and Havers work magnificently in tandem and their comic timing is a revelation.

Coward’s orginal production – for which he wrote Some Day I’ll Find You and he himself played Elyot – probably didn’t envisage the lead roles as being of “a certain age”. Here, those “outrageous” seduction scenes which were thought likely to corrupt 30’s morals are somewhat dampened by Elyot’s creaky bones and the crick in Amanda’s neck.

Natalie Walter and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart play the hapless other halves, Sibyl and Victor and Aicha Kossoko puts in an all too short appearance as Louise, the breezy French maid.

Private Lives is a winner from its candy-striped awning start to its outrageously funny end. It is also the inaugural production of The Nigel Havers Theatre Company and it bodes well for the newcomer’s future.

Private Lives is at Malvern Theatres until Saturday, April 9.

David Chapman