Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 26 February, 2008

It can be difficult to recognise in Peter Hall’s revival of The Vortex a play which so scandalised London and confirmed the arrival of Noël Coward in 1924. The acrid tang of contemporary jazz-age decadence is absent from Alison Chitty’s decorous sets, Mick Sands’ discreet score or the genteel gyrations as guests dance at a weekend house-party in the second act. It looks less like a sink of bohemian depravity than a country-house thriller, albeit one in which the question is not whodunnit but rather who’s going to stop doing it with whom, and when.
We are unshaken by the idea of the middle-aged Florence Lancaster taking a succession of younger lovers, although it is a bit much for her to do so beneath her husband’s nose. The matter of homosexuality, where it registers (as, for once, it does not perceptibly do in the case of Florence’s son Nicky), raises no eyebrows now, except perhaps in the uncharacteristic casting and performance of that venerable bear Barry Stanton in the role of the waspish family friend Pauncefort Quentin (hardly a name devoid of effete connotations in any era). And cocaine may have been almost as fashionable in the Twenties as in the Nineties, but Coward’s sketchy writing identifies Nicky’s pharmaceutical problems as being with that demon substance, “Drugs”, which seems able to produce any dramatically desired effect either through consumption or withdrawal.
What has not changed with time is the absence of any sympathetic character. The play is some leagues more savage than any of the later work by which Coward is remembered. Nicky’s fiancée Bunty Mainwaring is as unsentimental as (though in the person of Cressida Trew rather willowier than) her name suggests; Annette Badland and Timothy Speyer are serviceable caricatures as a self-regarding diva and an earnest dramatist respectively. Phoebe Nicholls is the fount of plain speaking as Helen Saville, but in the final act does seem to be ill-advisedly trying sanctimoniousness as a Sapphic seduction strategy on Florence. Paul Ridley as husband David is clearly the wronged party, but as written is barely more than a cipher; the same is surprisingly true of young lover Tom (Daniel Pirrie), whose principal function is to excite various responses in others rather than to exhibit a range of them himself.
The piece (a brief one: two hours all in, including two intervals) is written around mother and son, and works up to their fraught, Oedipally charged third-act confrontation in Florence’s bedroom. Nicky excoriates Florence for continuing to gad about as if she were half her age and for never having been a mother to him, leaving him to flounder into the box of white powder where he ultimately finds himself. This exchange is regularly compared with Hamlet and Gertrude’s closet scene, although in effect this Hamlet is accusing Gertrude as the prime malefactor. However, in Nicky’s fevered pleas for help, and particularly in Hall’s final despairing tableau, with both characters collapsed in each other’s arms as if they will never rise again, I also caught strong echoes of the corresponding closing moments in Ibsen’s Ghosts, when Mrs Alving and son Osvald run out of illusions. Dan Stevens spends the preceding acts working up to this high pitch as Nicky (a role Coward wrote for himself). Felicity Kendal has lately made something of a speciality of self-centred mothers, from Humble Boy to Amy’s View; she efficiently finds both the early comedy and the unpleasantness in Florence, but it might be nice if she did not deliver every single line in the final act racked with a sob in one key or another.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2008

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage