Design for Living is an intriguing and challenging comedy written by Noel Coward in 1932, and is crammed full of the author’s wit, style and flamboyance. Originally written to star Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Coward himself, it premiered on Broadway, in part because its subject matter was thought too risqué to pass the Lord Chamberlain, the then official censor to the London stage. It was not until 1939 that a London production, with Diana Wynward, Anton Walbrook and Rex Harrison was finally presented. By this time of course, Coward’s style of chic comedies of manners was beginning to date, and the play’s power to shock diminished by the specter of the oncoming war, which was to halt the run after 233 performances.
The story revolves around the three central characters, Otto (Kieran Hill) a painter, Leo (Gyuri Sarossy) a playwright and Gilda (Marianne Oldham) a sort of ‘muse’ to them both. The trio are bound together in a complex sexual/emotional triangle, as Gilda, who ‘has come late to the party’ and come between the two men, flits between one or the other, while faithful friend Ernest (Bill Champion) watches on from the sidelines. Gilda’s passions wane as the artists become successful and seem to need her less, and she flees to New York with Ernest in search of her own success, leaving Otto and Leo to console each other with booze. Of course, the pull of the amoral alliance is too great, and when Otto and Leo arrive at Gilda’s plush 30th floor Manhattan apartment two years later, her new, ordered world is set to be rocked to its core.
The central performances are spell-binding, and the three main players do a superb job making their unholy trio truthful and credible – no mean feat when you think that their character’s motivations are not easy to empathise with, even for today’s audience, with a more relaxed view on morality – they must have seemed absolutely scandalous to 1930s audiences! Marianne Oldham perhaps has the hardest job making Gilda believable with the twists and turns of her affections, but is a superb actress, and more than up to the task.
For me, the story is a little too challenging, and I am left with an uneasy feeling, that I have spent a few hours in the company of people who are not particularly nice, even a little cruel perhaps, without any character with whom I can completely engage. Even Ernest is flawed, and his indulgence early on makes his ultimate outraged denouncement of the "disgusting three-sided erotic hotch-potch” a bit implausible.
Still, plot aside, the performances are spot on, and there is fine support from Rachel Atkins (in contrasting dual-roles of cockney-char Mrs Hodges, and New York socialite Grace), Mark Armstrong, Daniel Curtus and Rosie Jones.
Under the tight direction of Caroline Leslie, and with the sharp designs of Alex Eales (the art-deco palatial New York apartment earns gasps of appreciation and its own round of applause at the beginning of Act 3), the production looks and sounds sumptuous, and for Coward aficionados there is plenty razor sharp and bristling dialog to devour.
Design for Living at the Salisbury Playhouse until 25 February