A broken picture frame is the backdrop for this production, an appropriate setting for the fractured, damaged characters we see whirling through their seemingly picture-perfect lives.
When the play was first performed in 1924, with Noel Coward himself in the lead role, it was received with shock and opprobrium, and it still packs an emotional punch. The heady cocktail of drugs, (homo)sexuality and oedipal affection is maybe no longer as scandalous as it once was, but it still makes for a gripping evening.
Florence Lancaster is fighting a war against time; old age and death’s shadow have no place in her glittering social circle and their endless, slightly desperate pursuit of pleasure. Her quest has led her to take a lover, Tom Veryan, behind her weary husband’s back. Tom is a hearty soldier, around the same age as Florence’s son, Nicky, whose return from Paris she is eagerly awaiting. Surprise! The rather effete Nicky returns with a fiancée in tow; well bred it-girl Bunty Mainwaring who coincidentally was once rather close to Tom Veryan. Cue jealousy, betrayal and the gradual unravelling of both Florence and Nicky as they are forced to face their addictions – she to youth and admiration, he to drugs – until they finally fall apart in the devastating end scene.
The thing with Noel Coward is that, just when you think you can take no more archness and flippant superficiality without becoming ill, he turns and delivers a moral message with the force of a blow to the solar plexus, and so it is with The Vortex. The first scene is pure Coward; a riot of cigarette holders, cocktail glasses and clipped, upper class voices dripping with dry ripostes and “frightfullys”. Then little by little he starts to show you the cracks beneath the veneer, before rounding the whole thing off with almost Victorian censorious finger-wagging. When Nicky sets out to dismantle his mother, blaming her for ruining his life and forcing her to see herself the way she truly is for the very first time, the lesson is crystal clear. This is Coward’s genius, the harmonious blending of brittle social comedy and deep psychological drama, and the Director, Stephen Unwin, handles the balance very well. The set is minimal without feeling underdressed, the use of music underpins the action nicely, and the interaction between the characters, after an alarmingly stiff, stilted beginning, quickly began to flow. The build-up to the climax felt natural; there were two intervals, and after each one the atmosphere on stage had changed subtly but electrically, ushering in a little more darkness each time. The use of mirrors and Florence’s changing relationship with them was also very clever. One small niggle; one of the two stage doors was a little far from the action, making exits which should have been sharp and definitive rather protracted, and creating pauses in the dialogue which caused it occasionally to drag a little.
Of course, such a delicately nuanced script relies on intelligent delivery for its power, and thankfully the actors did not disappoint. Kerry Fox was alternately magnificent and vulnerable as Florence; supremely confident one minute, needy and whiny the next, although somehow I felt that her final meltdown could have been a little stronger. Her entourage provided able support; William Chubb slumped greyly about as her downtrodden husband, and Helen Atkinson Wood and James Dreyfuss displayed impeccable comic timing as the histrionic singer Clara and the acid-tongued Pauncefort respectively. Sophie Rundle and Jack Hawkins as the guilty couple Bunty and Tom seemed rather to lack the spark of life, but as their characters are quite two dimensional anyway it must have been uphill going for them. Rebecca Johnson as the general friend and wise counsellor Helen was touching and believable; her scene with Florence where she struggles vainly to make her understand that she is “on the wrong tack” was heart-rending. The lesbian overtones to her relationship with Florence were subtly and gently portrayed.
The undoubted star of the show, however, was David Dawson as Nicky. His performance – tight, bitter, explosive – was so mesmerising that even surrounded as he was by so much vintage acting talent, it was hard to take your eyes off him. In his hands Nicky was wound up like a spring; you felt that the slightest touch would cause the dam to burst, making the atmosphere on the stage crackle with tension and apprehension. He was vicious, damaged, loving, clever, a fascinating character to watch. Dawson and Unwin downplayed the subject of his sexuality, making him merely effete rather than overtly gay, and thereby leaving a tantalising question mark over the whole issue. They made more of his twisted and unhealthy relationship with his mother; their final confrontation was as uncomfortable and painful as it was dramatic.
The final message of this moral-laden play is one of hope; Nicky and Florence vow to change, and to make themselves and each other happy. Will they manage it? Can anyone change their nature so radically? The question is very wisely left open. As we bid farewell to the unhappy, struggling band we may have doubts about their future, but we wish them all the best.
Reviewed by Genni Trickett
Updated Thursday 14th February 2013