Described by the playwright himself as ‘un peu shocking’, Noël Coward’s acerbic masterpiece, The Vortex, enthralled audiences when it was first staged in 1924. It explores a cocktail of taboo themes in the post-war Jazz Age. And, nearly ninety years on, Stephen Unwin’s revival ably proves what a bold piece of writing it was.
Nicky Lancaster is a neurotic and nervy young man who returns from a year in Paris with a cocaine addiction and an upper-class English fiancée. Troubled and deeply frustrated, he is a man who is undoubtedly gay but too blind, or unwilling, to admit it. His mother, Florence, meanwhile, is a vain and empty socialite whose once famous beauty is beginning to fade. Desperate to hang on to her youth, she takes a collection of lovers, and Nicky is horrified to discover her latest conquest is Tom, a swaggering Guards officer of his own age. But it’s when Tom falls in love with Nicky’s fiancée, Bunty, that both mother and son are left to face their own insecurities. In a raw Oedipal climax that clearly borrows from the famous closet scene in Hamlet when the young prince confronts his mother Gertrude with her adultery, they plunge into a frenzied ‘vortex of beastliness’.
The stylish Art Deco design by Neil Warmington – including a fabulous red-lips sofa and a broken picture frame around the stage – isn’t just intended as a visual treat, it creates a gilded atmosphere of broken and dislocated glamour which permeates the production.
Kerry Fox is charming as the shallow and posturing Florence, ably conveying a shameless woman desperate for adulation before hurtling through heartbreak to full-on hysteria. This is a mother who dotes on her son yet is incapable of caring for him, and Fox is mesmerising as she freefalls into ugly self-realisation.
But it’s David Dawson as the confused and needy son who is the mercurial force of this production. He commands the stage as he neatly alternates between spiky cocaine-riddled jumpiness and an underlying moral desire to put things right. There’s a touching scene when he sits down at the piano to play Gershwin’s ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ for his mother – the very thing she has never truly done for her son. It’s haunting to watch, and Dawson plays the moment with heartfelt brilliance.
The supporting cast are all on superb form. James Dreyfus’s Pauncefort savours each and every of his acidic one-liners with glee, while William Chubb, while saying barely a word, is still quietly convincing as the hurt and cuckolded husband. Jack Hawkins could perhaps have done with a touch more swagger as the caddish Tom; he never quite convinces as Florence’s racy young lover, but this didn’t in any way detract from what was a stylish and gripping production, one of fine details and subtle sparkle.
Read the Exeunt interview with Kerry Fox