It's the final Choice of Coward, and in his intro this week Noel informs us that tonight's play was the result of 11 years of trying to come up with the ideal vehicle for him to star alongside the legendary theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Amongst his rejected ideas was a play set entirely in a giant bed, including stage directions "Which, if followed faithfully, would have landed all three of us in gaol."
The eventual result of that gestation period starts in Paris in 1933. Jill Bennett plays the carefree Gilda (Coward says it with a soft G, everyone else with a hard one), whose stodgy friend Ernest (Richard Pearson) is utterly bemused by her unconventional relationship with flamboyant artist Otto (John Wood) (unconventional for 1933 anyway - they live together but aren't married). Ernest bears the news that Otto's great friend Leo (from whose side he won Gilda) is in town. After Otto and Ernest have left, we discover that Leo (Daniel Massey) was in the other room all along, he and Gilda having shared a night of passion while Otto was out of town (Leo's dressing gown and cravat are enough to tell us that this is the Coward character). The pair laughingly reminisce over old times and their mutual love of Otto, who chooses this moment to return. Convinced he's been laughed at he storms off, leaving them to it.
A year later, Leo and Gilda are living together in London. Leo has just become an overnight sensation as a playwright and is facing the dreadful attentions of the press, represented by a gauche reporter (Desmond Newling) whose interview includes such profound questions as "What is your opinion of the modern girl?"). While Leo's off at some hideous publicity thing Gilda receives a visit from Otto, who has also now found huge success as a portraitist. The pair immediately rekindle their relationship.
The next morning, Gilda decides to leave London. She's been muse to both Otto and Leo, and now they've both found success she feels she's surplus to requirements, and heads off with a New York-bound Ernest. At first overjoyed at being reunited, Leo and Otto row over Gilda, then make the discovery that she's gone (leaving identical notes for them both), and proceed to drown their sorrows in brandy and sherry ("a very fine Armadildo"). The maudlin pair, consoling one another over their loss, eventually end up in one another's arms.
Three years later, Gilda's married to Ernest and living in New York. An intimate soirée held for guests Warren Stanhope, Carol Cleveland and Stella Bonheur is interrupted by the arrival of Otto and Leo, dressed in identical outfits and behaving like far more than good friends. They've come to reclaim Gilda from conventional society. She doesn't seem thoroughly opposed to the idea, but to avoid scandal slips them a key and tells them to come back when her guests are gone. The next morning Ernest returns from a business trip to find Leo and Otto in his home but no sign of Gilda. She slipped out to think things over, and she's decided that she, Leo and Otto belong together. The remainder of the play consists of the mischievous trio mocking Ernest and the normal society that he represents.
The cast of Design for Living is excellent, and there's a certain historical fascination to it, but it's by some way the weakest of the Choice of Coward. At times it feels like it's never going to end, and it seems very pleased with its own attitude to things that, while undoubtedly shocking in the 1930s, now seem pretty banal (all right, three-way relationships like the one here may not be exactly common, but they don't seem all that interesting either).