Noel Coward’s far from perfect breakthrough play was The Vortex (1924), and the effect it had on complacent theatre audiences of the day must have been similiar to the impact experienced by theatregoers in 1956 at John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Unlike Osborne though, Coward wasn’t an angry young man; just a prodigiously talented one who, even at so young an age, was a master at surfing the celebrity wave. Being controversial, he knew, was the shortest route towards attracting media attention, and what better way was there to be talked about than to write a play about drug addiction, adultery, promiscuity and latent homosexuality?
There would, of course, be problems with the squeamish Lord Chamberlain, protector of the West End’s values and morals. But that was all part of a piquant concoction in which he would also star as Nicky Lancaster, one of the play’s two central characters.
Having somehow managed to charm the Lord Chamberlain into believing that The Vortex was a highly moral warning against the hazards of drug addiction and the misery wrought by unbridled hedonism, the play, after a short but triumphant run at the Everyman in Hampstead, transferred to the Royalty in the West End.
Nicky Lancaster’s addiction to cocaine wasn’t, it turned out, the most shocking departure in the play. More unsettling for contemporary audiences was the picture it painted of a totally frivolous, selfish, superficial and pleasure-seeking society as epitomised by the play’s central character, Florence Lancaster (Felicity Kendal).
A woman of a certain age but still extremely attractive, she relegates her staid, but thoroughly decent husband (Paul Ridley) to the backrooms of their Mayfair flat while she pursues a goodlooking guardsman half her age (Daniel Pirrie).
Her son Nicky (Dan Stevens), meanwhile, has been living a bohemian existence in Paris where he meets and becomes engaged to an English rose called Bunty (Cressida Trew) to whom he is not in the least bit physically attracted, the implication being that he is latently homosexual.
Coward pads out the first two acts by introducing us to Florence’s social set – who with the exception of her best friend Helen (Phoebe Nicholls, excellent) are as useless and as unappealing a bunch of nobodies you could hope to see. The chit-chat isn’t particularly witty, the minor characters are underwritten, and the entertainment value negligible.
It would be another year, with the appearance of Hay Fever, before Coward’s ability to gather under one roof so diverse a group of personalities, would pay artistic dividends and prove him to be a magician in the art of small talk.
In The Vortex, though, it isn’t until Act Three when a despairing Nicky and his equally despairing mother confront each other in Florence’s bedroom, a la Hamlet and Gertrude, that the play’s power to shock and touch the emotions, kick in. Nicky accuses her of selfishness and committing adultery with young men – a situation that has clearly contributed to his drug addiction.
Though Dan Stevens is basically miscast as the ‘effeminate’ debauched Nicky, he manages to tap a vein of genuine sympathy in the play’s concluding moments. But without Felicity Kendal’s power-driven performance as Florence Lancaster to inspire him, it’s hard to imagine him making much impression at all. Watching Kendal develop her range and become one of the best actresses we have, is an on-going theatrical pleasure.
Otherwise, there are not many delights on offer in director Peter Hall’s revival (certainly not Alison Chitty’s relentlessly drab and minimalist sets, not the awkward supporting performances, and certainly not the embarrassing staginess of the opening of Act Two).
Kendal is the production’s saving grace and the only reason to reacquaint yourself with Coward’s historically important, but flawed early play.
BY CLIVE HIRSCHHORN, courtesy of This Is London