First Night: The Vortex, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Young struggles to match the mastery of Coward
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The Independent Culture

Noël Coward's early play The Vortex was the talk of London for its daring subject matter and the "whacking good part" which Coward wrote and created, launching himself as a social and theatrical celebrity. That was 1924.

The buzz surrounding the Royal Exchange Theatre's revival is less to do with the writer's exposé of the hedonistic goings-on and fashionable depravity of the idle classes than with the stage debut of another celebrity, the former Pop Idol, Will Young.

It was a gamble rather than logical casting by the director, Jo Combes. Young - who came out of drama school to take part in Pop Idol - is an unknown quantity who made no more than a decent enough impression in the film Mrs Henderson Presents. However, his success as a songwriter and vocalist and his winning self-confidence suggested that, if any contemporary pop performer could recreate Coward's beguiling charm, deft wit and mellifluous rhythms, it would be him.

In many ways Young is perfect in the part of Nicky Lancaster, the spoilt, heroin-shooting boy, emotionally adrift from his resigned father and flighty mother, and weary of the nebulous life he's drowning in. But, where Coward surely dazzled in his understated, subtle delivery, signalling cracks in a shiny exterior with a mischievous sentimentality, Young merely veers between a bright smile and a crumpled expression, pouting petulantly. His slightly fey mannerisms convey just about enough of the complex sexuality of his latently homosexual role, but there's little hint of the boyish bubbliness or urbane veneer which might have attracted him a fiancée such as Bunty Mainwaring (given a feline gloss by Laura Rees).

Young is greatly helped by the rest of the cast. Diana Hardcastle gives a compelling performance as his calculating, socialite mother, Florence - her selfish vanity and weakness for extramarital affairs with younger men blinding her to her son's vulnerability. Their final, wretched encounter, as they teeter on the brink of descending "into a vortex of beastliness" is searing in its intensity. As they tear at each other's failures, you feel mother and son deserve each other.

The dry, droll wit of Florence's long-suffering friend Helen is perceptively captured by Alexandra Mathie and David Fielder's camp, eccentric "Pawnie" Quentin cheers up the cocktail hour. But, as a play, The Vortex suffers from its awkwardly underdeveloped characters, not least Florence's limp-brained, chumpish military lover.

Combes brings out the darker elements of this spiralling whirlpool of devastating revelation and confrontation, her interpretation only occasionally at the expense of Coward's spirited wit and bitchy brittleness. The hurly-burly of the tricky weekend house-party dance is seamlessly handled, although splitting the three short acts into two parts makes for an awkward break.

The stage is a ziggurat construction, on several levels each featuring extravagant black Art Deco shapes and squiggles on a white background dominated by an ugly decorative vortex. Designed by Lez Brotherston, it's suitably over the top for Florence Lancaster's fashionable London apartment but far less appropriate for her country house drawing room and, still less, for her bedroom. The modern Philippe Starck Louis "Ghost" chairs, ideal for an in-the-round setting, are quite wrong for the era but his costumes, a riotous celebration of period style, nearly always hit the target. A lot like this production really.

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