Design For Living / Betrayal, Theatre Royal, Bath

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The Independent Culture

Noël Coward's sex fantasy of 1933 and Harold Pinter's cat-and-mouse game of 1979 might seem to have no more in common than triangle drama - in the first play the dialogue is often funny, always frivolous and extravagant; in the second it's all tension and implication, banality exploited for the sake of creepiness. But Peter Hall's provocative pairing, with doubled leads, points up how much they share. In each play the woman cheats on one of the men with his best friend, then cheats on the second with the first; in each the relationship the men have with the woman is less important than the one they have with each other.

The subtext of Design for Living, which in 1933 dared not speak its name, still socks you in the eye in 2003. When the painter Otto and the playwright Leo declare that they "love" each other, their language can be regarded as the childlike effusiveness of artists; when Otto, then Leo, leaves the field and Gilda to his rival, he might be following the old-school code of ethics; and when, at the end, they agree to take turns, Coward could be merely pushing that code to a comical extreme.

Believability is not the play's strong suit, in detail as well as outline. The first act is far too long and talky, and the last one is a cry for help. Still, there is enough fun to make the thing work with an attractive enough cast, and this version comes up with the goods. I am afraid nothing will convince me that the scrumptious Aden Gillett is anything but heterosexual, despite his campily dropping into a Coward imitation on a characteristic line such as "not particularly." That, however, is not his fault - unless the gay theme is consistent and intense, it feels tacked on, most obviously in the actors' final kiss, which came as a hideous surprise to the audience at the matinée: it seemed the subtext hadn't reached Bath. Hugo Speer, whose clean-cut Aryan blondness and now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't accent bring a whiff of Cabaret to the proceedings, is quietly attractive. Janie Dee is a bit strained as the hard-but-honest Gilda, whose costumes become more exquisite and her hair more strictly waved with each act and each new lover. She is, though, blithely attractive, and carries off both the duff and the snappy lines with panache.

These days one notices that, while Otto and Leo are creative people, Gilda is merely a decorator. But in Betrayal all three leads are the artist's necessary parasites - Robert is a publisher; his wife, Emma, runs an art gallery; his best friend, Jerry, is an agent. The play might have been written to meet a challenge Pinter set himself: can one see a married man who sleeps with his best friend's wife as a victim? He brings it off by making Jerry feel manipulated and emasculated: for the last few years of the long affair, Robert has known about their infidelity, and Emma has known that he knew. Plenty of men might think this a small enough price to pay for the chance to shack up with Janie Dee, but, to Pinter, the woman is no more than a counter in the game the friends play with each other. What binds them is not love or even hate but competitiveness.

Gillett is an endearing Jerry, though awfully guileless for an agent. Speer's Robert is the more impressive figure, his brusqueness barely covering a sadistic manner toward his wife and a thuggish one toward his friend. The best acting, however, is done by Dee, whose careful opacity makes her wordless reactions in the long scene in which her husband confronts her with her infidelity all the more sickening.

To 9 August (01225 448844)