The Vortex, Rose Theatre Kingston | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
The Vortex, Rose Theatre Kingston
Coward without the laughs
Noël Coward's 1924 play must have been thought very daring at the time, dealing as it does with a young man's cocaine addiction - no wonder it has been called the jazz age's Shopping and Fucking. But young composer Nicky Lancaster's penchant for nose candy wasn't the social transgression being examined - his real addiction is not drugs, but men. Quite how the then 24-year-old Coward (who created the role of Nicky on stage) got the play past the Lord Chamberlain in anybody's guess, but thankfully he did, and its themes still resonate today.
At the play's heart is Nicky's relationship with his socialite beauty mother, Florence (Kerry Fox, capturing her character's vanity) who frequently cuckolds his father (William Chubb doing stoicism rather well) with men her son's age; her latest squeeze is not-so-dashing officer Tom (Jack Hawkins), who's definitely not a keeper. It starts deep in Coward territory - all cocktails and cigarettes in holders (there's an awful lot of smoking in this play) - and people saying “frightfully” and “terribly” a lot as Florence's friends, including James Dreyfus as Pauncefort Quentin, gather in her drawing room for a stiffener before dinner. There's even a character called Bunty (Sophie Rundle).
But Neil Warmington's simple set, on a roughly painted canvas surrounded by a broken picture frame, gives us the nod that there are some fractured relationships to be examined among the clinking glasses.
Nicky (David Dawson, pictured right with Sophie Rundle) returns to the family home after a debauched year in Paris; he has got himself hitched to Bunty in order to go straight. By coincidence, Tom used to step out with Bunty and the rekindling of their romance is the catalyst for both Florence and Nicky's breakdowns. When Florence becomes hysterical at losing out to the younger woman not even her wise friend Helen (the terrific Rebecca Johnson) can calm her, in a scene where the lesbian undertow is subtly played.
As the evening progresses, Nicky's behaviour becomes more erratic and it leads to an emotional confrontation with his mother where he cruelly tears apart the pretence of her life, while confessing how wretched his own existence has become because he has been living a lie.
Stephen Unwin's revival, with a few miscast roles, is fatally underpowered. Coward's comedy falls flat and, while much of his dialogue is deliberately brittle and superficial, it's played so naturalistically here that for much of the evening the stage is full of vacuous people whom we care little about being vile to each other.
Thankfully Dawson manages to make Nicky appealingly vulnerable, and there's an exquisitely touching moment - a look of love and pain that flickers across his face momentarily - when Florence unknowingly mentions the object of her son's desire, whom he has left behind in Paris.
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