Noel Coward’s 1933 ménage à trois, or “disgusting three-sided erotic hotchpotch,” is as good as any of his better-known plays and comes up fresh as paint in Anthony Page’s Old Vic revival.
Gilda is an interior decorator, Leo a playwright and Otto a painter. They shuttle between Paris, London and New York like three naughty children, three intertwined (dis)graces, relishing their own bohemian debauchery, and professional success, until Gilda’s dependence on a successful art dealer (his dullness and moral righteousness brilliantly conveyed by Angus Wright) prompts a showdown.
Not seen in London for 15 years, and first “re-discovered” for the modern theatre when Michael Blakemore directed Vanessa Redgrave as Gilda, Page finds revelatory new rhythms in Design for Living, especially in the last act when Leo and Otto return like avenging angels using their smart veneer, and Coward’s devastating, sarcastic lines, as a shield in battle.
Andrew Scott as Leo and Tom Burke as Otto make a winning double act, the first rising to temperamental falsetto hysteria, the second implacably charming and suave, both hilarious in the funniest, and best controlled drunk scene imaginable, their faces disintegrating in a rubbery mush; a sudden face slap, accidentally discharged, only compounds the reverie.
That scene is played quite slowly, and the shape of the play is properly preserved with two intervals, so the evening runs over three hours. But you won’t want a refund. The boys flicker like moths round the flame of Lisa Dillon’s Gilda, a strong-headed woman in thrall to bohemianism, rather than the wild animal itself, but she plays with kittenish vivacity throughout.
Three settings are cleverly designed by Lez Brotherston around the same white sofas, and beautifully lit by David Hersey. There is no insistence on any one period, but it does all look slightly historic without stuffiness, especially in the second act telephone exchanges. Maggie McCarthy’s four-square housekeeper Miss Hodge comes into her own here, revealing that she is indeed married, but took back her maiden name - in disgust.
And there is good back-up from John Hollingworth doubling as a dishevelled reporter form the Evening Standard and a society bore; the pin-sharp, precise Nancy Crane as a New York socialite; and Edward Dede as a pop-eyed manservant. Well, the comedy does take the rise out of sex and marriage, but in the funniest and most boisterous fashion.