The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham are currently staging Noel Coward’s The Vortex, a difficult play that has been revived a few times recently, notably at the Apollo Theatre in London last year, with Felicity Kendal as Florence Lancaster. First performed in 1924, it’s a play very much of its time, when many felt the whole world was caught in a “vortex of beastliness” as hedonism prevailed after the First World War. However, its characters, though difficult to like much, capture a feeling of emptiness, of “what is worth living for?” that chimes with most periods.
It’s certainly Coward’s darkest play. Opening with brittle social comedy, characters rush in and out exchanging cut-glass frivolities, until the cracks begin to appear in their relationships. The play centres on Florence Lancaster, cleverly seen first through the eyes of two of her friends, who mourns her fading beauty and takes younger lovers to satisfy her vanity. Her son, Nicky, played by Coward himself in the 1924 production (and here replete with Coward-style dressing-gown in the last act), arrives with a new fiancee in tow, but clearly has a strained relationship with his mother, who seems to see him as an accessory rather than a son. His hatred of her behaviour has caused him to turn to drugs, while Florence’s rejection by her latest young lover sends her spiralling downwards in a vortex of self-pity.
This production, though nicely staged with striking Modernist sets, was a little awkward in some places, and some of the accents were somewhat wobbly, but as I said, it’s a difficult play to stage, and by the final scene in which Nicky confronts Florence about her behaviour, the tension was built up well, and the closet drama – which reminds me of the scene between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude – of the situation was played out nicely.
There are some notes on The Vortex here, which give an insight into what is undoubtedly an extraordinary play; it can be annoying, or difficult to get involved with, and then just when you least expect it, along comes some genuine emotion, something that strikes you as true. No wonder this play made Coward’s name.