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Noel Coward's Design For Living at Old Mill Theatre

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NoŽl Cowardís banned play a ďthree-sided erotic hodgepodgeĒ
Noel Coward, Design For Living, Old Mill Theatre, play, performing arts, comedy, stage, banned
Otto (Jeffrey Watkins, left), Gilda (Nyree Hughes) and Leo (Garry Davies) are trapped in a "three-sided erotic hodgepodge

A NoŽl Coward romantic comedy Ė initially banned in the UK Ė will take audiences on a wickedly witty journey from Paris to London and New York as part of the Old Mill Theatre's latest offering. Directed by Barry Park, Design For Living is a provocative play that portrays three amoral, glib and stylish characters and their hopelessly inescapable, if also unconventional, emotional entanglement.

From 1930s bohemian Paris to the dizzying heights of Manhattan society, a tempestuous love triangle unravels between vivacious interior designer Gilda, playwright Leo and artist Otto Ė three people unashamedly and passionately in love with each other. "They are trapped in what one of the characters refers to as 'a three-sided erotic hodgepodge'," Barry said.

Noel Coward, Design For Living, Old Mill Theatre, play, performing arts, comedy, stage, banned
NoŽl Coward's banned play Design For Living features Rebecca Caldwell, left, Jeffrey Watkins, Julie Holmshaw and Nyree Hughes. Picture: Linda Hewell

"It's a lively and funny but also atypical play that looks at dazzling, egotistical creatures and their self-destructive dependence on each other. "I'd describe it as a stylish and scandalous comedy, exploring themes of bisexuality, celebrity, success and self-obsession."

The main task, according to Barry, is portraying the three settings on stage. "It's going to be a challenge to fit the sets and furniture on the small Old Mill stage but I've worked out a crafty way to do it," he said.

"There's a lot of rapid dialogue in the play and the cast is going to have to be really on the ball Ė particularly the leads, who are rarely off stage. It also offers some wonderful set and costuming opportunities, given the time period is the glamorous early 1930s."

Noel Coward, Design For Living, Old Mill Theatre, play, performing arts, comedy, stage, banned
Design For Living director Barry Park, left, discusses NoŽl Coward's script with Jeffrey Watkins and Ellis Kinnear. Picture: Linda Hewell

Acting and directing since the 1970s, Barry has performed in a plethora of plays, musicals, pantomimes, minstrel shows, films, radio plays and television in Salisbury, Cape Town, Edinburgh, London and Perth. He is equally at home performing in pantomimes and comedies such as Black Comedy, A Laughing Matter and She Stoops to Conquer as he is in Shakespearean tragedies such as Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

Several plays Barry has directed have won awards, including M. Butterfly which picked up gongs for best director and best play at WA's annual Finley Awards. His productions of Broken Glass, The Real Thing and Cat On a Hot Tin Roof have also received several Finley Award nominations.

"I always choose plays that are well-written which I think audiences will enjoy," Barry said. "I've always loved NoŽl Coward's plays, which are clever, complex and entertaining and have previously directed Blithe Spirit, which I enjoyed immensely.

"Design For Living is extremely funny and witty but it has a dark side and was very risquť for its time. Today's audiences will still find its content amusing, yet somewhat confronting, and will appreciate the opportunity to see it because the play is rarely staged."

Noel Coward, Design For Living, Old Mill Theatre, play, performing arts, comedy, stage, banned
Gilda (Nyree Hughes, left) shares a moment with socialite Helen (Rebecca Caldwell) in NoŽl Coward's Design For Living. Picture: Linda Hewell

Nyree Hughes plays Gilda. "She's like a lost little girl in an adult world because she has an internal struggle of wanting to be normal by society's standards yet prefers the life of the Bohemian gypsy," she said. "An unconventional kind of love bestows itself upon her and it acts like an undertow, trying to pull her under when she's just trying to keep her feet firmly planted.

"If Gilda had a personal motto, it would be 'it seemed like a good idea at the time'. Remembering the lines is the main task because it's is a monstrous amount of script.

"Showing Gilda's highs and lows and then pulling her right back to really highlight those moments will be a challenge. It can be risky to perform such extremes in mood because you need to be careful not to push it over the edge into pantomime.

"Design For Living appealed because it's set in Paris, London and New York in the 1930s Ė what's not to love? I also found it quite interesting that, for something written 85 years ago, the main theme is still considered slightly taboo.

Noel Coward, Design For Living, Old Mill Theatre, play, performing arts, comedy, stage, banned
Three's company in NoŽl Coward's Design For Living for Garry Davies, left, Nyree Hughes and Jeffrey Watkins. Picture: Linda Hewell

"Even though we have come so far in accepting people as they are and who they love, this play will demonstrate we still have a long way to go. I'm sure it will make a few people squirm with the thought of such a convoluted relationship."

Nyree also has a family connection to NoŽl Coward. "I love his plays because I find them fun and light and I've been told he would stay in my great-grandmother's guest house in Margate when he was attending and performing at the local theatre," she said. "I'm not sure of the full details but it's a lovely bit of family history."

NoŽl Coward's Design For Living plays at 8pm April 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, May 3, 4, 5 and 6 with 2pm matinees April 23 and 30. Tickets are $25, $20 concession Ė book at or on 9367 8719. The heritage-listed Old Mill Theatre is on the corner of Mends Street and Mill Point Road, South Perth (opposite the Windsor Hotel and Australia Post).

Noel Coward, Design For Living, Old Mill Theatre, play, performing arts, comedy, stage, banned
In NoŽl Coward's Design For Living, Gilda (Nyree Hughes, left) catches up with New York socialite Grace (Julie Holmshaw). Picture: Linda Hewell
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Why? Anything by NoŽl Coward is a treat Ė and this is a chance to see one of his works that is rarely performed.
When: 8pm April 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, May 3, 4, 5 & 6; 2pm April 23 & 30
Phone: 93678719
Where: Old Mill Theatre, Mends Street, South Perth
Cost: $25, $20 concession
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