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Design for Living

Noël Coward
Old Vic
(2010)

Design for Living publicity photo

Design for Living may not be one of Noël Coward's better known plays but it is characteristic and, at times, extremely funny. Anthony Page's revival boasts a magnificent triptych of sets and fine acting, particularly from Lisa Dillon in the pivotal role of Bohemian interior designer Gilda.

Coward wrote the play as a vehicle to allow him to have a wild time on stage with his very good friends, husband and wife Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

It is a sexual free-for-all that, though presumably less explicitly realised at the time, must have felt very modern, almost to the extent of offending the Lord Chamberlain when it was first produced in the 1930s.

If Design for Living needed to be summed up in a single line, Gilda does so while describing the motivations of the central trio: "Our lives are diametrically opposed to ordinary social conventions".

The first of three acts takes place in the Paris loft studio of an artist, Tom Burke's suave Otto. Confusion is manifest, as his muse (or should that be mistress?) Gilda welcomes Ernest, an art dealer who is a precise dullard though, at the end, Angus Wright in this role suddenly turns him into Basil Fawlty on a bad day.

Gilda's problem is that rather than sharing her non-marital bed with its usual incumbent, she has swapped him for their best friend Leo, played by Andrew Scott as a precious panicker of the Stan Laurel ilk.

Miss Dillon is really at her best when unsuccessfully using brittle subterfuge to hide her numerous guilty secrets before eventually "coming out" in the play's final scene. All is revealed with the return of a devastated Otto but life can never be quite the same.

After the first interval, we move to the lavish, art deco London flat of Leo. He co-habits with Gilda but, in a subverted repetition of Act 1, Otto reappears to set the cat amongst the pigeons. However, there are differences, including Maggie McCarthy scene stealing as judgemental maid Miss Hodge.

Soon, every variation has been tested, as Leo and Otto pair off into an archetypal drunken music hall routine, after relieving mutual depression by sinking a bottle of brandy.

Cut to a New York penthouse filled with fine art and furnishings and a stunning view of midtown Manhattan, confirming that designer Lez Brotherston will be on prize shortlists come the end of the year.

This is the home of Ernest and Gilda, by now married. Their bliss though is shaken by the return of the boys, practically twins in matching pyjamas and still exerting an inexplicable hold over Gilda.

Design for Living is a brave play that explores unorthodox attitudes to sexual ambiguity from every angle. It is also frequently laugh out loud funny, though underlying the humour is real heart, as, in turn, Gilda disappoints and devastates each of her menfolk, and, in doing so, herself.

While Miss Dillon is deliciously decadent throughout the three hours, Andrew Scott and Tom Burke become increasingly camp members of this kinky ménage à trois.

This evening has the highest production values, strong acting and much good humour. As such, Design for Living deserves to fill the mighty Old Vic for the duration of the run, which lasts until the end of November.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher