Noel Coward like the poor, is always with us, beloved of regional repertory and amateur dramatic companies up and down the land. Recently he's also enjoyed something of a major revival with Howard Davies' terrific production of Private Lives in the West End two years ago and this year's The Vortex at the Donmar Warehouse.
It has, however, taken Sir Peter Hall some years to get around to this dramatist - this production is his 'first Noel'. Coward may once have provoked or even shocked, but few things date faster than notoriety, and what remains now is, as Coward himself had it, "a talent to amuse". Design for Living is one of five plays in repertory at Bath Theatre Royal, a disparate collection united by the exploration of sexuality and sexual mores.
Where Private Lives had two people who couldn't live with - but equally couldn't live without - one another Design for Living traces the fortunes of three people in similar turmoil. Gilda loves Otto and Leo, both also love her. They in turn are devoted to each other. Described by Coward's biographer Philip Hoare as "an elegant dance of sexual confusion", with an "unmistakably homosexual" tone overall, Design for Living's footwork seems a little unsure, the homosexual hints muted in Hall's production.
The laughs too are slow in coming, although once the play and audience settle, they come thick enough. Ann Penfold, as the servant, makes the most of a role which, for subtlety of characterisation, is up there with Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Janie Dee as Gilda is winningly toothsome and Aden Gillett as Leo a successful but slight playwright (and a mocking self-portrait by Coward?), is the best of the bunch. Hugo Speer, as the successful but equally superficial painter Otto, achieves a fine comic rapport with Gillett in Act II, but elsewhere is uneven.
This isn't a production which needed to be staged although it steps along nicely for the most part, reaching a satisfying climax in the last two scenes and, at two hours long with two intervals, doesn't outstay its welcome. There is, as you would expect, a judicious leavening of bon mots, and the set (by John Gunter) is suitably elegant.
There have only been three major London revivals of Design for Living since the Second World War, the last some eight years ago, so Bath is doubly privileged. An entertaining, if undemanding, night out.
- Pete Wood