‘Design for Living’ is a wicked, rarely staged comedy. It is one of 50 plays written by English playwright, composer, director, actor, and singer, Sir Noël Peirce Coward. Although this play was written 85 years ago, it has retained a fresh look, and of course is written in his inimitable style that, like all of Coward’s plays, will last forever.
Coward was born in Teddington, near Hampton Court, in the last month of the 19th century. As a child, he trained as a dancer, but to support his parents and siblings, he started writing in his teens. Acting in his own plays in central London at the age of only 20, he became professionally employed as an actor, working constantly throughout his life. He never looked back.
By 1929, Coward was one of the world’s highest-earning writers, with an annual income of £50,000, more than £2,600,000 ($5 million) in terms of 2017. Coward recorded most of his best-known songs e.g. ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ just before the Second World War. For a while, he worked for the British Secret Service, so the Nazis had him scheduled to be arrested and killed.
In 1962 he was asked to play ‘Dr. No’ in the first James Bond film of the same name – he refused, as he did when offered Humbert Humbert in ‘Lolita’.
When he died in Jamaica, aged 74, he was known as a ‘congenital bachelor’, he did not acknowledge his homosexuality. Being a friend, the Queen Mother attended the funeral of this public benefactor,
This three-hour, three Act, two interval production is a scandalous, risqué comedy, initially banned in the UK had to have its Premiere on Broadway. It is now being presented by the Old Mill Theatre Company, in the Old Mill Theatre on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road, South Perth. These witty shows can be enjoyed on a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening at 8.00 pm until Saturday 6th May. There are matinées on Sunday 23rd and 30th April at 2.00 pm.
There are three very different sets, from decrepit to sumptuous. Greg Aylmore, Frank Aylmore, and Gary Wetherilt constructed these inventive, quality sets. Sheila Wileman has excelled with the tasteful décor and properties. Keith Shackleton did the graphic design, and the Matisse artwork – a forgery of ‘The Blue Nude souvenir’ – is by Jenny Dilkes.
With three major set changes, Stage Manager Glynis Best and her assistants, Theo Wilson and Gwyn Davies worked rapidly and silently. The design was very clever, as the stage, space is limited, and yet the scenes looked completely different.
Ian Doherty operated John Woolrych’s carefully considered lighting design, with sound effects and Justin Friend’s music smoothly operated by Nina Doherty.
Act 1: The scene is portrait painter, Otto’s art studio in Paris, 1932.
The room is rundown and unkempt, with the wallpaper pealing; it looks as though it has not been tidied in months. The settees are covered with scatter cushions and drapes. The rear wall had boudoir style hangings.
Although Otto (Jeffrey Watkins) is a Dandy, he lives in a rundown artist’s studio in Paris with Gilda (Nyree Hughes) an elegant, interior designer. One morning, art dealer, Ernest Friedman (Neale Paterson), calls around to show Otto his new acquisition – a Matisse, however Gilda tells Ernest that Otto is sick in bed and cannot be disturbed. Minutes later Otto returns home – healthy – and Ernest discovers the truth, Gilda has actually been sleeping with their mutual friend, insecure playwright, Leo (Garry Davies).
Act 2: Scene is eighteen months later in Leo’s neat flat in London.
There are smart sofas, and the whole room is in white and powder blue. In the corner are a ‘His Master’s Voice’ phonograph and a candlestick telephone. At the rear of the stage, is a large central picture window showing blue sky, and allowing the sunshine to enter.
Leo’s plays have become very popular, and Gilda has moved in with him. One day, a journalist, Mr Birbeck (Charlie Young) and his press photographer (Praveen Hooda) call to interview Leo. Later, when Leo is away, Otto arrives and tells Gilda how wealthy he has become selling his artwork.
Next morning, Ernest calls at Leo’s flat and is surprised to meet Gilda. The highly principled housekeeper, Miss Hodge (Julie Holmshaw) is horrified at the comings and goings of the various male partners.
Act 3: Is two years later, and set in Ernest’s New York, luxury penthouse. The balcony gives a magnificent view of the city. The walls are marble, and valuable vases and fittings decorate the room.
Gilda and Ernest are now married. When Ernest is away, Gilda gives a reception for his wealthy clients, Helen Carver (Bec Caldwell) and her husband Henry (Charlie Young). Just as the richest client in the area arrives, Grace Torrence (Julie Holmshaw), the reception gets two unwanted, embarrassing guests – Otto and Leo. The clients become humiliated and leave. In an attempt to help them relax, the big-eyed valet, Matthew (Praveen Hooda) serves them coffee.
Can there be any winners in this ‘hodgepodge’ of lovers?
Finley Award winning director, Barry Park, is obviously a Coward fan, as the play is directed with affection and a full understanding of his work. Every member of the cast has the typical Coward air, pure English accent and an egotistical, stiff upper lip. Even Leo, who was the delightful runt of the litter, had just the right amount of finesse.
The costumes of the 1930s are a dream for many wardrobe mistresses. Jennifer Prosser did not miss the opportunity to immerse herself in beautiful materials and delicate styles. The costumes were designed and constructed with the help of Dinah Zaikos, Nyree Hughes, and Jeffrey Watkins. Gilda’s scarlet trouser suit, pale apple satin dressing gown with lace finish, even the houndstooth coat with large buttons was breath taking. Every cast member had perfectly styled, well-fitted costumes. In many plays, the men tend to be ignored, but here the cravats, hats and pyjamas were 1930s. Exquisite costume work. The director managed to make the nostalgic play provocative and tempestuous without lowering the tone. The storyline could be a little tighter (as scripts tend to be these days), but only if it does not change the Coward Genre. The dialogue is rich, rapidly delivered, and snappy, but the cast met the complex demand and gave good solid performances. A particularly fine performance from Nyree Hughes, strongly backed by the three lead men, Jeffery, Neale, and Garry. Julie was hilarious as she tried to cope with new technology.
Many of the cast were back treading the boards after too long a break, some others were very new to the stage, but you would never guess, as the chemistry was strong.