Design for Living

Noël Coward
Salisbury Playhouse

It is not difficult to see why Design for Living is among the least revived of Noël Coward’s major works. This powerful comedy of sexual infidelity is brutally frank about the lives and passions of Gilda, Otto and Leo—so much so that in 1933 it was considered pointless to risk the Lord Chamberlain’s censure of a play offering a light-hearted approach to a ménage à trois.

The result was that the first performance was in Ohio with the premier in New York. Only six years later did Design for Living enjoy a London production.

Caroline Leslie’s excellent production for Salisbury Playhouse is taut and spectacular. Settings by Alex Eales offer in the early scenes an intimacy which immediately brings us face to face with Coward’s shocking exposure of the hypocrisy of the times. Nothing, however, except theatrical scrapbooks, prepares us for the spaciousness of the New York apartment of Act Three.

I have been for some time troubled as to whether modern schools sufficiently prepare actors for the dramatic energy of such as Coward’s era and this production does little to remove those misgivings.

Excellent performances all by Marianne Oldham (Gilda), Kieran Hill (Otto) and Gyuri Sarossy in the Coward role of Leo. Yet there is a noticeable absence of the formidable “style” which even at this early stage in his career was the hallmark of The Master.

It may be that the need for vocal pace is over-ruling the importance of precision. We hear everything but we may not always catch the drift!

As becomes a Coward production, there are delightful cameos. Outstanding of course is Rachel Atkins’s Miss Hodg—a Coward character if ever there was one—and the same player also does well as society lady Grace, overlooking the park.

Top marks, too to Bill Champion (Ernest) in a somewhat thankless role over which he clearly works very hard almost without showing it.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole