Will Young aiming to emulate Noël Coward in 'The Vortex'

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The Independent Culture

It was the play that catapulted Noël Coward to fame as both writer and performer. The Vortex was a scandalous sensation when premiered in 1924 with its bold depiction of the drug-fuelled hedonism of the Bright Young Things.

And now Will Young, the former Pop Idol winner, is to take on the role originally performed by Coward in what will be the singer's theatre debut. Young plays the troubled musician Nicky Lancaster in the production in rehearsal at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

The play is the story of an enchanting if vain social beauty, Florence, whose fragile relationship with the vacuous Tom unravels when her son, Nicky, returns from Paris with a trial fiancée. There is a strong subtext of homosexuality - which was, of course, illegal at the time the play was written.

The appearance of Young who is gay, follows his film debut last year in Mrs Henderson Presents by Stephen Frears in which he played a gay entertainer to generally good reviews.

One critic dubbed his performance "impressive" while another conceded he was ideally cast even if the jury was out on whether he could act. He will be more stretched in The Vortex, described by the Exchange as "the stylish story of the jazz generation dancing its way into a whirlwind of desire and deceit".

But Jo Combes, the director, said it felt like exactly the right role for Young's stage debut.

"It is a big risk because he hasn't done any theatre before. But he did come out of drama school to do Pop Idol. And he's absolutely holding his own.

"He speaks like an actor and has an actor's instincts. It feels like he was born to play the troubled musician. He has a complete connection to that era in terms of his tastes and passions. It feels like he belongs to it.

"Historically The Vortex has been a play for debuts - it launched Noël Coward. But it is a really difficult role because the play ends with [Nicky] and his mother fighting it out in her bedroom in a real Gertrude and Hamlet scene."

Young, 27, started rehearsals last week and took a break at the weekend to attend the civil partnership ceremony of the Little Britain star Matt Lucas.

He describes the play, which opens on 17 January and runs until 10 March, as "rather punk rock for its day" with mass consumption of cocaine. The drama of promiscuity, homosexuality and drug addiction produced shocked reviews when it opened on Coward's 25th birthday, 16 December, 1924, at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, north London.

The People called it "the most decadent play of our time" and The Express condemned it as "a dustbin of a play". But other critics admired the young playwright's stagecraft.

It took London by storm, making Coward's name and setting him on the path to fortune. The work has been regularly revived, notably at the Donmar in 2002 with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Nicky.

In the history of British theatre, the Literary Encyclopaedia described it as being for the 1920s what John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was to the 1950s.

Before The Vortex, Coward, who had worked as an actor from an early age, had written just two light comedies, I'll Leave It To You and The Young Idea, the latter inspired by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw read Coward's effort and told him that he "might become a good playwright, provided he never read another of his plays".