Updating a classic to a contemporary setting is always a challenge. Noel Coward's tale of a bisexual ménage à trois, replete with the bite of his trademark cock a snook at social mores, shocked audiences in the 1930s. But as it unfolds in 21st-century fashion in this new Royal Exchange production (the last in the theatre's 25th anniversary season), it becomes clear that simply adding modern references and nudity in place of the original ingredients is not wholly successful.
Marianne Elliot's version follows three central characters - artist Otto (Oilver Milburn), successful playwright Leo (Clarence Smith) and society decorator Gilda (Victoria Scarborough) - who simply cannot live a day without each other. When Gilda and Leo first form an attachment as a couple, Otto is left full of anguish. But his return to both of their lives is inevitable, as is the unconventional - and increasingly entangled - relationship that develops from there.
What makes Design for Living interesting is the characters' sheer desperation - they will cross hell and high water to be together. And while, both 70 years ago and today, we may be accustomed to seeing this transpire between a couple, it provides a real conflict of interests, emotions and social expectations when the "three's a crowd" mentality holds such sway.
Unfortunately, curiosity is not enough to hold the audience's attention here. Nor is Elliot's glossily stylish direction. Aside from any weaknesses in the material, the main fault of the production is one of miscasting.
As the axis of attention and attraction, a woman who two men will give up everything for, the social-climbing Gilda needs to be a strong but enigmatic presence. But Victoria Scarborough never manages to find her character's mysterious edge. Instead, she resorts to volume, particularly in the first act when she spends most of her time shouting her lines rather than seducing her companions. The two male leads acquit themselves well, but because we can never believe they could really desire such a woman, there's ultimately little for them to hook into.
The acting and the direction play a poor second to Lez Brotherston's amazing set. From the functional Parisian abode to the dazzling but ultimately empty New York apartment, each backdrop underscores Gilda's out-of-control lifestyle.