The works of Noel Coward are hard to update being so closely associated with a particular time and social class. This is especially so of Design for Living, which was written as a vehicle for the author and two of his friends whose real-life, open marriage is reflected in the plot.
Relationships between the three characters are, to put it mildly, complex. The close friendship between artist Otto (Gareth George) and playwright Leo (Barney Cooper) is strained by their mutual attraction to decorator Gill (Felicity Elder). Gill has affairs with each of them before the trio begin to wonder if defying society's norms and living together as a threesome is the only way they can achieve happiness.
Advance publicity for the Mashed Up North production promises that the characters will be revised into present day welfare claimants. This is provocative suggesting that such claimants now possess the unearned wealth and excessive free time previously enjoyed by the idle rich and so are able to live without normal moral constraints. However, director John Mulleady doesn't fulfil the promise. He tweaks the text to bring it up to date with references to blogs and so on but leaves the characterisation unchanged.
Rather than be passive recipients of state benefits the trio all have professions and paid incomes. The effect is Coward in modern dress rather than without class. The absence of a unifying theme limits both the relevance of the production and the extent of its success – the second scene in which conversations are constantly interrupted by the ringing of the telephone is all too familiar nowadays.
The cast are not at ease with Coward's arch and knowing dialogue. Scenes in which Otto and Leo fall out and argue over Gill sound forced and unconvincing. George and Cooper work better as an intimidating double act and sniggering conspirators in the second Act. Felicity Elder seems more comfortable showing no judgement about Gill's determined efforts to live a shallow and trivial existence.
The second Act is the more successful. Rather than allow the easy escape of showing the characters to be essentially innocent – incapable of taking anything even themselves seriously- Mulleady brings some darker shading to the conclusion. A pratfall and the inclusion of snide remarks shows that the trio take actual pleasure in sneering at those who are excluded from their cosy worldview bringing a realistically sour edge to a production that is not always convincing.
Design for Living is at the Kings Arms until 7 February.
- Dave Cunningham