A married woman with her latest toy-boy lover; thinly veiled homosexuality; a mother-son bond so intense it's close to incest – such things didn't occur in 1924, on the stage at any rate, and their appearance in Noël Coward's early play The Vortex caused a sensation.
In impact and shock-value, it was the precursor of Look Back in Anger, Saved and Blasted. Coward himself played Nicky Lancaster, an aspiring pianist, who returns from Paris with a fiancée and a cocaine habit. He's appalled to discover that his mother Florence, a glamorous socialite, is struggling to cling to her youth by flaunting her affair with a dim but dishy Guards officer half her age.
To clear the censor, Coward argued that The Vortex is "little more than a moral tract". This was disingenuous; there's more to it than that. But it's true to say that brittle, smart-set wit goes hand in limp-wristed hand in this piece with middle-class censoriousness. It begins as a comedy of manners and darkens, climaxing with an Oedipal showdown between Nicky and Florence that evokes the closet scene in Hamlet and the gutting conclusion of Ghosts.
There isn't, alas, enough nervous electricity in Peter Hall's underpowered revival. Instead of conveying a restless, neurotic temperament, Dan Stevens's initially bland Nicky looks ready for the diplomatic service. Despite hints that the character is gay, there's nothing to justify the toy-boy's description of him as "up in the air – effeminate".
It's a slow-burn portrayal though, and comes into its own in the final clash with his vain, insecure mother. Her fight against age grows ever more hysterically deluded in Felicity Kendal's powerful portrayal. The double standard that castigates women for wanting a good time in middle age dates the play, but Stevens, in agonised lost-boy confusion, beautifully registers the emotional neglect that Nicky has suffered because of Florence's selfish priorities. The end here breathes the desolate atmosphere of Ghosts: a devastated mother forced to face the son she has helped to ruin.
Barry Stanton is too hairy and heterosexual to convince as the suave old bitchy queen, Pawnie. But elsewhere the support is strong. Cressida Trew is spot-on as the sharp, lucid fiancée who realises (with honest regret) she's wandered into the wrong camp. Best of all is Phoebe Nicholls as Florence's acerbically truth-telling chum, Helen.
Hall adds a novel and suggestive twist. In his version of the bedroom scene, Helen has become disinhibited by drink and, when she tells Florence "You're on the wrong track and have been for years", there's a hint in her over-fond caresses that she would like to offer more than a shoulder to cry on.Reuse content