The Theatreguide.London Review
Design For Living
Old Vic Theatre Autumn 2010
This Noel Coward revival starts a bit slowly, but once it finds its stride it is as stylish and laugh-out-loud funny as you could wish.
Like Private Lives, Design For Living is a celebration of escaping social conventions and restrictions, with central characters who can feel real feelings but choose not to because that would be giving in to a world that wants to spoil their fun.
(Also like Private Lives, this is one of the plays Coward wrote as a starring vehicle for himself and friends, originally the American acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.)
At the centre of Design For Living is a menage a trois, two men and a woman who love each other desperately (and, we presume, sexually) and who, after some false starts, finally realise they can only be happy if they give up all attempts at behaving conventionally and just enjoy themselves.
In Act One Gilda is living with artist Otto but spends a night with old flame Leo, much to everybody's distress. In Act Two she is living with playwright Leo but spends a night with Otto, much to everybody's distress.
In Act Three Leo and Otto have been living together and come to fetch Gilda away from her attempt at a conventional marriage, much to everybody's relief and delight (except, of course, for her husband, who is dismissed as blithely as Elyot and Amanda's spouses in Private Lives).
The fun in this comedy comes from watching the central trio wrestle their way toward realisation and embrace of the inevitable, enjoying their liberation and the shock effect it has on others, and of course revelling in Coward's elegant wit.
If things are slow getting started here, it is because director Anthony Page plays the first act a little more seriously than you might expect, to give a sense of the pain generated when the trio try to act conventionally.
Lisa Dillon's Gilda spends much of the act in embarrassment and near-panic, honestly afraid of what might happen if the conventional friend played by Angus Wright discovered who was in her bed.
Tom Burke's Otto is - or at least feels he must act as if he is - truly outraged and hurt by her infidelity, and Andrew Scott's Leo can only grin sheepishly like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Much the same thing is about to happen in Act Two, but the men catch on to the solution quicker than Gilda, thanks in no small part to emptying a large bottle of brandy and a hilarious drunk scene in which they not only bond but begin to realise the freedom that comes with not giving a damn.
The two actors and the director have a lot of fun here, as they find different paths toward drunkenness, reacting with surprise, acceptance and ultimately delight to each slip in their equilibrium.
And in Act Three, when Gilda has married Angus Wright's character in an attempt to become ordinary, Leo and Otto crash a party and celebrate their liberation by sending everyone up with exactly the level of subtlety that only Gilda (and we) can catch and recognise for the fun it is.
(I won't even get into her husband's reaction, except to say that Angus Wright comes perilously close to stealing the show away from the three stars.)
Tom Burke plays Otto as the most nearly grown up of the three, consciously choosing to be irresponsible because it's more fun, while Andrew Scott's Leo is more of a child, wavering between naughty-boy self-delight and petulant self-pity.
Lisa Dillon's Gilda is perhaps a little too one-note edgy throughout, alternately manic in fear, manic in excitement and manic in happiness, and it will be nice if her performance develops more shadings as the run progresses.
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