Actress Lisa Dillon has a natural innocence that suggests you could leave her alone with an open box of the most tempting chocolates and return later to find that not one had even been breathed on.
In this revival of Noël Coward’s Design For Living, that innocence is dispelled faster than the moral norms of society as Dillon’s interior decorator Gilda, Andrew Scott’s playwright Leo and Tom Burke’s painter Otto, struggle to live within an unusual ménage a trois.
This relationship between the comedy’s central trio is most easily explained in Coward’s own words, as delivered by Leo to Gilda: “I love you. You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto. Otto loves you. Otto loves me.”
Coward splits the play into three acts, which share a delightful symmetry; an unexpected arrival, an angry exit and Angus Wright’s caring family friend Ernest feeling thoroughly confused and befuddled by the whole thing.
Success, wealth, absence; they all alter the dynamic between the three friends/lovers who struggle continually with the ‘can’t live with me, can’t live without me’ dynamic.
Like a precursor to an American teen drama, much of the action in Design For Living comes from the three protagonists discussing, considering, examining and analysing their relationship, and it is in these verbal sparring contests and vocal jousts that Coward’s comedy is brought effectively to the fore in Anthony Page’s production.
Scott, Dillon and Burke bounce off each other like olives in a martini glass, each bringing something different to the relationship. Scott’s Leo is impish, juvenile and exuberantly playful; Burke’s Otto is a cooler character with a glint in his eye; and though Dillon’s Gilda is rarely the slinky femme fatale, her understated sexuality, sheer dresses and occasional smouldering looks are enough to ignite passions.
The piece comes alive when any combination of the three lovers are on stage together. Their sparkling repartee flies with rhythm and pace. Scott and Burke in particular have outrageous fun playing a scene where Leo and Otto get drunk swigging brandy from sherry glasses; surely as much a faux pas as a three-way dalliance.
Designer Lez Brotherston has created three interiors that rise in grandeur as the evening progresses, from a boho chic Paris studio covered in pictures, to a London apartment complete with floral suite and art deco accessories and a glamorous New York penthouse adorned with large scale paintings.
When Coward first wrote Design For Living, he premiered it on Broadway for fear that it would be censored on the London stage. Much of the shock of seeing an unusual relationship portrayed in the theatre has dissipated over the years. What is left is an intriguing study of the three-way dynamic, a trio of engrossing central characters and Coward’s wickedly quick wit.