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Design for Living at The Old Vic

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by Kat Parr Mackintosh (subscribe)
Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
Sound: Brring brring
Vision: A phone pressed to the side of an attractively powdered female cheek.
Sound: "Darling, did you know that they're playing Noël Coward's 'Design for Living' at The Old Vic?" Pause. "Yes, darling, the one that was banned the first time around in the 30s for being too risqué for the sensibilities of London's theatre going audiences!" Brief pause. "Yes, the one he ended up playing in himself on Broadway. And darling..." Pause for dramatic purposes. "'s just fabulous – just racy enough to make it worth going for the dirty wit alone."

Apparently Londoners of 2010 are more open minded than those of 1932, for the play's running at Kevin Spacey's Old Vic until the 27th of November, complete with homoerotic overtones, risqué chat and suggestions of a very practical love triangle.

The three acts are upwardly mobile, moving from a artist's studio in Paris, to a flat on a London square, to a Manhattan penthouse with views of the park. The three main characters greeting their age with success. Otto is an artist, Leo is a pithy playwright and Gilda is an interior designer.

In the Old Vic's production Gilda is played by Lisa Dillon, Otto by Andrew Scott and Leo by Tom Burke.

Initially Gilda is the live-in-love of Otto, but she quickly becomes the common law wife of Leo, and finally the wife of their old friend Ernest, who's an art dealer. Their main problem, as their careers take off, is that Otto loves Gilda and Gilda loves Otto, Leo loves Gilda and Gilda loves Leo and Otto and Leo are old chums from the day, who it can easily be said love each other also. So they find it terribly difficult to live with and without each other – despite the sparklingly loving and pragmatically caustic way they're able to reason the situation out amongst themselves. They're all bumping around bathing in the light of their combined brilliance and passion, extolling their own rules for authentic loving and living; none of them entirely able to cope without the attention that comes from the three points of their triangle.

The brilliant wit of the text is a highlight, but the delivery – draped in some gorgeous sets and costumes – is a lot of fun as well. Care of Director, Anthony Page. The 'boys' spend the last half hour of the second act getting drunker and drunker and the last half hour of the play wearing a truly gorgeous set of matching pyjamas several sizes to big for them. Gilda, who comes from money, is the most puritanical about success, and is played as a bit of a madam-y foot stamper when it comes to the crunch – which shows her era more than her age.

This play evokes the clever fun and freedom of a bygone age that we often think of as being more restrictive than our own, but is actually just as erotically fantastical in 2010. The writing just sizzles far more than a contemporary play would get away with. Proving that darkly original, subtle wit is sexy. But that's just par for the course from Noël Coward - even though this is one of his least revived plays for some reason.

One of the most charming things about this play is its autobiographical nature. Coward met his original co-stars Lynne Fontanne and Alfred Lunt on his first, penniless trip to New York in 1921, when they were equally broke, and promised that when he made it big he'd write a play that all three of them would star in. So a decades fame later he did. And they did. The censors just found it too suggestive of all sorts of decadent sexual behaviour that they couldn't put it on here – but maybe that's just part of this witty play's darling story on and off stage.

It's laugh out loud more than just guffaw under your breath.
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Why? don't you know Plenty of glamour and 'darlings', darling, as well as the moments of 'race' you'd be expecting. A very enjoyable way to jolly away an evening.
When: Nightly, not Sundays, until the 27th of November
Where: The Old Vic, The Cut, nearest staion: Waterloo
Cost: From £10
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