Productions of Noel Coward plays have tended to favour the well-known and wittier variety, such as Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter (both done splendidly by the Bear Pit recently), Private Lives and Relative Values. We know where we are with them, not so much The Vortex.
Director Michael Rolfe says in putting on The Vortex he was looking for a Coward play that had not been done to death and still had the power to shock.
On the face of it the play is familiar Coward territory. The set and design at The Loft is spot on — art deco furniture and happy 1920s jazz soundtrack. The dapperly clad actors puff exotically on cigarettes throughout (how nostalgic it all looks in fag-free Britain!); and the fraught relationships are established from the get-go.
Florence Lancaster (Julie Godfrey) is an aging society beauty, mum to the troubled Nicky (Sean Glock), wife of aged David (Martin Cosgrif) and, crucially, lover of young and vacuous Tom Veryan (Cam Scriven). Her gossipy friends Helen Saville (Tracey James), Pauncefort Quentin (Paul Atkins) and Clara Hibbert (Gemma Mann) hang around Florence’s London apartment, commenting on the action and filling the audience in on the background story.
Of course with Coward the seeming sexual liberty and witty repartee of high society disguises brutish squalid secrets. When son Nicky returns home from a stay in Paris, his relationship with his narcissistic mother is clearly strained… He introduces his fiancee, Bunty Mainwaring (Karen Scott), to her, and it becomes ever more painfully obvious that the action and words of the characters are deceitful in the extreme.
A jolly weekend away at the Lancaster’s country house sees things unravel completely, and it ends with a devastating scene in which Nicky confronts his mother with a lot of ugly home truths – his drug addiction, her shallowness – it has echoes of Hamlet versus Gertrude.
Director Michael’s production shunned the hammy fun with which Coward is so often treated, and instead pursued a more heavyweight psychological angle, and in so doing made its relevance to a modern audience more pertinent.
The acting in particular impressed — a strong cast was more than up to the task at hand. Stand outs include Sean Glock’s Nicky, who put me in mind of the brilliant Robert Downey Jr, both in looks and presence, and Tracey James as Helen, who as the moral heart of the play was perhaps the one sympathetic character.
All in all, a very brave Coward production.