Sunday, 14 November 2010

Design for Living *****

Having already seen this production and given it the handsome rating of five stars I knew exactly what the cast and creative team were capable of when I booked my ticket. Going in, the question was whether the show had maintained the level of brilliance that it had demonstrated at the previews. I can answer that question with a resounding yes and a more in-depth review than before.

Any review of the show is remiss if it fails to mention the simple but elegant sets, peppered with details that make all three locations appear both artistic and lived-in at the same time. There is nothing out of place on the stage and everything is beautiful.

The acting is of the highest order as well. Knowing the excellence of the cast from my previous outing I was expecting a good show, though half expecting them to fail to repeat the performance I had seen before. Happily, I found myself in stitches regularly trying to contain my hyena-like squeals from the poor souls sitting near me. I largely succeeded, though with no help from the cast. The pauses were perfectly timed, the witticisms that make Noël Coward unique were delivered with unfaltering style and charm, making them all as delightful as intended. The twists and turns as the characters try and keep up with the silliness of their lifestyle, which is a struggle for the trio and most notably the honest Ernest, whose explosion at the end has developed over the run from an outburst that had begun as hilarious but has now exceeded even that.

The relationship between Otto and Leo is also one that has developed since the first time I saw the show. Their performances seem more relaxed and neither is afraid to experiment on stage with odd ways to sit on a sofa or dramatic ways of saying their lines. Tom Burke and Andrew Scott are having fun with what is an ingeniously witty script and it is a wonderfully enjoyable spectacle to behold.

The scene where Otto and Leo are re-united in London and drink themselves through their turmoil had the whole audience laughing out loud regularly and was wonderfully dramatised, the characterisation bringing out the best of the dialogue as well. They are wonderfully cast and do a fantastic job with each other.

Although Tom Burke is a fantastic and assured Otto I feel I have to give a special mention to the petulant and outright silly Andrew Scott who revels in his character, bringing a youth and an excitement to the show that even Coward’s script doesn’t give up quite so easily. He takes the already humorous raw materials and crafts them into something doubtlessly magnificent.

Gilda is not to be left out of the running by any means. Lisa Dillon tackles what is a very difficult part to master with such rampant confusion and volatility that her actions and reactions are perfectly plausible. She brings a character to the stage that doesn’t understand her role in the erotic hotch-potch that is the socially unconventional trio. Throughout the play she develops her understanding and, however much she tries to escape it with the fantastically upstanding Ernest, she comes to learn that the three of them are inseparable.

The extravagance, arrogance and absurdity of the life they live is brought out fantastically by the presence of Ernest, the wise, dully effulgent spectator to the drama who sits aloof from it all (at least until the very end) and tries to calm them all down with his precise wisdom and agèd charm. Angus Wright makes the most of a character that has just as much fun as anyone in the script.

The smaller roles are also well played. The development of their performances was interesting to watch, Miss Hodge was even funnier than she had been before, especially with her manner of answering the phone and her judgmental sensibilities. She, as with Ernest, is a wonderful expression of the difference of the life that Leo and Gilda (and, of course, Otto) have been living.

Keeping up with all the quips in the script and the beauty of the set and costumes could not have been an easy job, though definitely an enviably enjoyable one, and one that is a credit to Anthony Page’s direction. He has handled the cast wonderfully, allowing them the opportunities and the freedom to experiment and enjoy the lines that they are given, exploring the characters they have formed so fully and the results are magnificent.

It’s not very often that you see a show that makes you wish that it were a film so that you could watch it again and again and again but this production is one such show. Having seen it twice I would still go again and would certainly love it.

The script stands the test of time, the characters are possibly more relevant now than in Coward’s time and I’m sure that Coward himself would have loved every moment of the spectacle presented by what is a very talented team of individuals.

It’s a wonderful synergy of everything that goes into putting a show together. Nothing stands below par, making the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts that it is convincingly the best piece of theatre that I have seen this year.

Written by Noel Coward; Directed by Anthony Page; at the Old Vic Theatre; starring Lisa Dillon, Angus Wright, Tom Burke and Andrew Scott.

John Ord   (13/11/2010)

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