The Vortex was the play which established the young Noël Coward as both enfant terrible and wunderkind: aged 25 he had four shows running in the West End – a feat not achieved by a playwright before or since – but in The Vortex he took a more cynical view of the society to whose window his working-class nose had been firmly pressed since leaving home in Teddington.

Coward’s scraped-savings visit to New York in 1921 taught him two things which would serve him for a lifetime: that Broadway plays were performed at a much snappier pace than English comedies, and that if you were young and pretty and could play the piano, someone rich would invite you to a party. He was entertained frequently by the eccentric and flamboyant American actress Laurette Taylor and her diffident writer husband J. Hartley Manners and repaid them by picturing their characters in two early plays. In Hay Fever, it’s affectionate and light-hearted, inThe Vortex, it’s cruel, and Stephen Unwin’s vibrant but contradictory revival splendidly highlights the spite.

Fifty-something Florence Lancaster, modelled like Judith Bliss in Hay Fever on Taylor, is a mess: ragingly self-centred, she treats her friends and family as accessories and has acquired a guardsman toyboy the same age as her etiolated gay son Nicky, who returns from a year in Paris with a faux-fiancee and a cocaine habit. Angry and jealous of each other’s foibles, the only way Nicky can break Florence’s cocoon of self-indulgence is to confess his drug dependency, in a bedroom scene Coward borrowed shamelessly from Hamlet, and demand she fulfil the parental role.

Kerry Fox’s haughty but insecure Florence is less drawlingly patrician than previous iterations such as Maria Aitken or Felicity Kendal; her search for approbation and affection seem more three-dimensionally vulnerable and desperate, and her infatuation with the guardsman easier to disapprove of. As Nicky, David Dawson is a highly strung instrument, framing his deep uncertainties with both fierce posing and frightened moments of loss: when his mother casually mentions a man they’d encountered in Paris and there’s a revelatory beat in Dawson’s performance, it’s thrilling.

Each successive revival of The Vortex makes the homosexual themes more evident: although longing to write an effective “gay play”, Coward had to make adjustments to pass the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, although it was the newly illegal drug use which was the sticking point. Despite the fact that until 1916 you could buy (in Harrods, no less) a kit labelled “A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front” which contained cocaine, morphine, syringes and spare needles, Coward had been shocked by news that an actress friend had been found dead in bed at the Savoy from a cocaine overdose, and argued that the play would highlight the problem.

This revival also riffs the Sapphic underscore of Florence’s friendship with the only voice of sanity, her best friend Helen – also the best female performance in the show from the excellent Rebecca Johnson. Among the well-developed cameos are William Chubb adding grace and intelligence to the background figure of Florence’s husband David and impressive in the scene where he tries to have a fatherly chat with Nicky; and Sophie Rundle, just out of RADA and otherwise known for appearing nude in Matt LeBlanc’s kitchen in BBC 2’s Episodes, in a very nicely rendered sketch of the superfluous fiancé. There’s also a surprisingly well-modulated performance by James Dreyfus of Pauncefoot Quentin, a witty, waspish and theatrically chain-smoking old queen: a role which has surprising clairvoyance for being almost exactly the personality Coward himself would become, forty years on.

The two-interval format unfortunately saps the momentum built up in the second act, but the staging is superb: Neil Warmington’s set traps the characters between a fractured picture frame and an unfinished painter’s canvas; a bit heavy on the metaphor, but it works.

Date reviewed: Thursday 14th February 2013
Image © Simon Annand

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.