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Design for Living at The Old Vic

Marion Marples

Noel Coward's wit still sparkles in this lively but long new production of his 1933 comedy Design for Living by Anthony Page.

As she moves through life from a Paris garret, to a London flat and a New York penthouse, Gilda (Lisa Dillon) is a glamorous woman with aspirations to be more than a housewife, who is caught in an unusual and at first unresolved triangle of relationships.

Convention makes her eventually marry older, staid art dealer Ernest (Angus Wright) who satisfies her perceived material needs. Gilda however, yearns for the joy and fulfilment of her earlier love affairs with both artist Otto and his writer friend Leo. They all wrestle with the problem of trying to live life fully.

Coward had to write carefully particularly about the relationship between Otto (Tom Burke) and Leo (Andrew Scott), so as to avoid censorship. And this production succeeds in showing them as playful and loving, but not camp. It's hard to remember today that such matters as extra marital affairs and homosexuality, not unknown in 1930s artistic circles, had to be portrayed so discreetly.

There are a lot of words but Coward's fine dialogue spins along. Society has moved on a long way from then but the dilemmas still remain about how to live satisfactorily. We do not see how or if the eventual ménage a trois will work out, but we are persuaded that it will.

There are some nice production details – the sofas to define the location of each act and the way in which the New York scene change gives Matthew, the man servant, extra profile. I enjoyed the scene where the London newspaper reviews of Otto's new play are compared very astutely by Coward. Miss Hodge, the cockney housekeeper, played by Maggie McCarthy, was well judged.

And the final scene where Otto and Leo appear wearing matching pairs of Ernest's fabulous polka dot silk pyjamas brings the end we have all been waiting for: the bringing together of Gilda and her two lovers.

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