Last Updated on 7th May 2023
Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews Noel Coward’s The Vortex now playing at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Chichester Festival Theatre
THE ROARING TWENTIES, ROLLING OVER THE EDGE
When Noel Coward shocked and enthralled the 1920s with this most bitter and intense of his plays, he was meanwhile hastily finishing the farcical Hay Fever and working up to Private Lives, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit and a name synonymous with laughingly cynical, frothy drawing-room comedy. This first success, though, is their dark and angry older cousin: fascinating in its denunciation of all the glamorous fast-and-loosery Coward was to treat with lighter mockery.
Last time I saw The Vortex performed, to my chagrin I found it mainly irritating: was lost before its explosive ending by sheer dislike of too many characters in its world. You can overdose on datedly witty social banter. This is a cleverer take: in his rapid staging – assisted by a whirling revolve and at one point some smoke – director Daniel Raggett shows no fear of us losing some of the words in the opening boho-beau-monde chatter or the party scene. The important thing is that we feel the frenzy of those lives and get the gist, the brittle vanity of Florence Lancaster, her dependence on the adoration of the loutish Tom, the unease of her returning son Nicky and the unlikelihood of that airy nervy creature’s “engagement” to the stumpingly down-to-earth Bunty.
So the opening is taken fas and sketchy, briskly introducing properly pointless people like Clara (lovely singing) and Pauncefoot (award for Best Camp smoking). It lets some lines get lost under muttering and overtalking and gives proper weight to the adoring but clear-sighted Helen, who wishes Florence would admit her age and the fact that her absurdly young lover Tom is not as smitten as she is. She also indicates what becomes darker later, Nicky’s increasing dependence on drugs; and we get the saddest of glimpses of Florence’s husband David, who the diva coos “grew old while I stayed young”, and who is the only parent truly pleased to see a 24-year-old son home from Paris.
That directorial determination carries through into the second act, the party scene into which we are mercilessly whirled by Joanna Scotcher’s revolving set and some striking movement, smoke and racket. Not least from Nicky at the piano (when the erotic debacle occurs Giles’ Thomas music and sound is overwhelming, and the smoke makes you for a moment think “drawing-room-comedy-meets-horror-movie”). Finally, all the trappings, modish furnishings and shrieking guests give way to bare-stage moments between Helen, Florence, and eventually and cataclysmically, Nicky. Who is in a Hamlet rage against his mother’s sexual licence and self-delusion.
That treatment works, paring down the play to its intended angry core. Priyanga Burford’s Helen, and Hugh Ross as husband David, supply a civilized, prudent gravitas as the other principals swirl towards disaster. And at its centre Lia Williams, gamine in jodhpurs then gowned and glamorous and finally shuddering in nightwear, is tremendous. She moves from brittle gaiety to howling humiliation, back to defiance “It can’t be such a crime being loved, it can’t be a crime being happy!” and finally surrenders to the reality of the less romantic kind of love, shocked by her son’s closeness to the edge. Nicky is Joshua James, Williams’ real-life son but more importantly a seasoned and subtle actor. He proves well able to inhabit the pretty, fragile, desperate under mothered boy. They are sensational together on that final bare stage. You gasp.
The Vortex plays at Chichester Festival Theatre until 20 May 2023.