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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Old Vic


  Andrew Scott, Lisa Dillon, Tom Burke/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

The most overrated virtue in drama is relevance. If Noël Coward had written his play today, it is hard to imagine that we would feel much empathy for a trio of self-obsessed trustafarians who are as much in love with themselves as each other.
Coward wrote his 1933 comedy as a star vehicle for himself and the glamorous acting couple Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. Lunt played painter Otto, Coward the playwright Leo, and Fontanne their lover Gilda. They had wild success with a play that daringly subverted the institution of marriage and promoted the notion of childless hedonism in its place, though only as long as it didn’t harm anyone but themselves. It may not be Karl Marx, but it was pretty revolutionary. Especially as Coward was not just offering an alternative design for living, but in the relationship between Otto and Leo, an alternative sexuality too.
Anthony Page’s production makes this clear with Otto and Leo’s first greeting, which involves an unabashed kiss on the lips. All of which is nothing new to today’s audiences, who pursue happiness with few restrictions. On that level Coward’s manifesto will make about as many waves today as did those nude shows of the late 60s and 70s that purported to fight for sexual liberation at a time when everyone was pretty much free to sleep with anyone, and often did.
But you can’t keep down a well-made play. Three acts, three lovers, three cities – Paris, London and New York, the essence of each captured by designer Lez Brotherston’s interiors – adds up to an irresistibly satisfying construction. With the end of Act Two climaxing in a deliciously played drowning of sorrows as Tom Burke’s slightly-more-dashing-than-camp Otto, and Andrew Scott’s slightly-more-camp-than-dashing Leo come to terms with being jilted by Lisa Dillon’s Gilda. It is a superbly paced scene during which bottles of brandy and sherry are downed and the unbearably articulate sophisticates metamorphose into endearingly gibbering idiots.
But as Dillon’s intelligent sex kitten Gilda says of Leo’s latest play, you yearn for deeper currents beneath the froth of banter. Thea Sharrock found it in her National Theatre production of After The Dance, Rattigan’s damning portrait of Bright Young Things, “who never were very bright.”
True, Rattigan was writing about the end of an era. But Coward does allow for something similarly judgmental, or at least questioning. Instead, having entertainingly caused a deal of pain to each other and not a little amount to their old friend Ernest (Angus Wright) who loves Gilda, our two heroes and heroine land in a heap of gleeful self-satisfaction. And as is always the case when watching the arrogant have their cake and eat it, the sight leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth.

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