Timothy Dalton, Rupert Everett, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Young: it’s a diverse range of contemporary actors who’ve been drawn to play Nicky Lancaster in Noël Coward’s The Vortex – the part that Coward devised for himself in the play that made his name in 1924. It’s not hard to see why, perhaps: the role of the talented, neurotic, coke-addicted young composer has a straight-up melodramatic appeal that’s hard to resist. Stephen Unwin’s new production of the play at Kingston’s Rose casts David Dawson (of the Donmar’s Luise Miller and the Royal Court’s Posh) as Nicky, with Kerry Fox as his mother Florence, the ageing beauty who’s presented as the cause of much of her son’s self-destructiveness and angst. And while lacking the charged-up, close-up intensity of Michael Grandage’s production at the Donmar ten years ago, Unwin’s sleek revival proves a highly engaging staging of one of Coward’s most potent plays.
Daring in its day – “un peu shocking,” in the words of its own author – The Vortex still has power and punch, as Coward views the decadence of the 1920s upper-class with a mixture of fascination and critique. The chief object of his disapproval is Florence: a socialite who keeps herself occupied with a string of toy-boys in order to hold back the years. But the principal emotional interest of the drama lies in the damaging effect that Florence’s behaviour has on Nicky, with tensions coming to a head when the young man returns to the family fold from Paris, only to discover that his mother’s current squeeze, a Guards Officer named Tom (Jack Hawkins), is a former beau of his own fiancée Bunty (Sophie Rundle).
The play’s move from classic Cowardian quippage to a final soul-baring duologue between Nicky and Florence that’s more than a little reminiscent of the Hamlet closet scene (with a touch of Ibsen’s Ghosts on the side) is challenging. But Unwin’s production remains alert to the play’s sharp shifts of mood and navigates them nicely, despite excessively jaunty music from Olly Fox and a design by Neil Warmington that has some questionable ideas (especially in the final scene) along with some clever ones (dig the red lips sofa!)
Key to the play’s success is the subtle complexity of its characterisation. There’s a whiff of misogyny, perhaps, in the presentation of Florence – a self-absorbed “Mommy Dearest” whose behaviour has broken both her husband (sympathetic William Chubb) and her son. But it’s offset by an edgy compassion, too. And Kerry Fox – a surprising casting choice for Florence – digs out the character’s underlying fears and insecurities while also conveying her vanity and casual cruelty, endowing Florence with a memorable tragic grandeur. She’s well-matched by the compelling Dawson who conveys both petulance and real pain as the tormented son. In recent years, it’s become commonplace to view part of Nicky’s “problem” as repressed gay desire, of course, and that idea is certainly implicit here, in the ironic spins that Dawson puts on certain lines and the sham that Nicky’s engagement to Bunty is shown to represent.
As the other members of Florence’s gossipy circle, James Dreyfus tosses out bitchy quips with panache and Helen Atkinson Wood gets some fruity comic moments, while Rebecca Johnson – too rarely seen on stage in recent years – brings exceptional candour and sensibility (plus an unexpected touch of Sapphic desire) to her role as Florence’s confidante, whose task it is to alert both mother and son to the possibility of a life beyond the destructive social vortex. Recommended.
Runs until 2nd March.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.