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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is 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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Review - Design For Living - Old Vic 2010