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.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Imelda Staunton gives the performance of the year in possibly the show of the year
Kings, kids and singing despots: a bit of everything in theartsdesk's tips
Off Broadway revival hops the Atlantic, its invention and power intact
Katie Mitchell delivers Chekhov's masterpiece with devastating power
Spirited revival of 1990s classic is enjoyably entertaining, but lacks darker shadows
The celebrated dramatist on adapting his idol Chekhov’s seminal work
David Byrne musical about Imelda Marcos offers razzle-dazzle, disco and no shoe gags
Anya Reiss plays safe with her modern updating of Chekhov
Wales's newest artistic director Rachel O'Riordan opens with an energetic blast of the Bard
Irina Brook's song-and-dance Ibsen entertains, but misses the darker shades
New play powerfully tackles one of the last taboos — women who leave their kids
Strong performances carry Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare