Noel Coward’s bisexual ménage a trois has lost none of its audacity in the seventy years since it was first performed on Broadway. This week Anomie Productions, the team behind the Talented Mr Ripley at the BT in Michaelmas, stage Coward’s resonant tale of the love triangle between a playwright, painter and an interior decorator and the development of their relationship in London, Paris and New York over a number of years. Director Hugh Montgomery remains faithful to Coward’s original concerns. This was a very personal play for Coward, based on his own experiences, and performed in New York to avoid the sanctimonious outrage the play would have raised in London. Montgomery resists the temptation to vamp the production up to compensate for the blasé attitude an audience of undergraduates will have towards the polysexuality of the piece compared with Coward’s audience. Montgomery’s is a confident production that doesn’t need to sensationalise to express the moral torpor and emotional immaturity of the characters. The heart of this play is of course the tripolar relationship between Otto, Gilda and Leo. And while John Walton is his usual dazzling self as Leo and Katherine Gray fills the role of the amoral Gilda beautifully, the threesome is compromised by Australian KA barman Richard Cornally’s Otto. While the dynamic between Walton and Gray at the start of the play gives off a sense of champagne- flute ennui and cosmopolitan decadence, Otto comes on like a Home and Away character mad as hell to find his sheila copping off with his best mate. Throughout the production Walton ponces, Gray wafts and Cornally fails to fit in. With his thick Aussie accent, his skinhead and ear stud, it’s like Romper Stomper meets The Importance of Being Earnest. Cornally is a perfectly good actor and is certainly telanted enough for such a large role in an OFS play, but is almost fatally miscast in the role of Otto. What saves the play is the command that Montgomery and his team have over the script. The excellent Coward set-pieces are handled perfectly. Gilda’s husband Ernest (Daniel Cooper)’s reaction when he comes home to find two gay men in his pyjamas demanding his wife is spot-on. What really impressive is how sympathetic this production is to the moral ambiguities of the script and the astute observation of the loss of authenticity the characters experience in their desperate craving to fill the holes in their lives with sex, success and stability. As the play progresses and the characters find themselves being subsumed by their public roles, the set decoration washes out from vibrant colours in the opening scenes of idealism and passion to washedout costumes and diluted furniture drapes towards to the end of the play. Anomie productions have shown guts by refusing to put on an unthreatening anyone-for-tennis? Coward play you’d expect in late May on the Oxford stage. It’s not Ibsen, but this adaptation of Design for Living reveals a pleasantly surprising maturity in the playwright and production team that should make for a rewarding emotional challenge before we begin idling our evenings away in front of indulgent lawns plays.
ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2003

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