The Vortex, Apollo Shaftesbury, London
Thursday 28 February 2008
Coke-snorting in high society; a married woman trailing round the latest in a string of toy-boy lovers; thinly veiled homosexuality; a mother-son relationship so intense that it verges on incest – such things didn't occur in 1924, on the stage at any rate, and their appearance in Noel 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 a year of louche living in Paris with a fiancée and a coke habit. He's appalled to discover that his mother Florence, a glamorous socialite, is struggling to cling to her youth with an affair with a dim but dishy Guards officer half her age.
To dissuade the censor from banning the piece, Coward argued that The Vortex was "little more than a moral tract". This was disingenuous; there's much more to it than that. But it's true to say that brittle smart-set wit goes hand in limp-wristed hand with middle-class censoriousness.
It begins as a comedy of manners and stealthily darkens, climaxing with an Oedipal showdown between Nicky and Florence that evokes both the closet scene in Hamlet and the gutting conclusion of Ghosts.
There isn't, alas, enough nervous electricity in Peter Hall's underpowered revival at the Apollo. Instead of conveying a restless, neurotic temperament, Dan Stevens's initially bland Nicky looks to be destined for the diplomatic service. Despite the various hints that the character is gay, there's nothing here to justify the toy boy's dismissive description of him as "up in the air – effeminate". It's a slow-burn performance, though, and it comes into its own in the final clash with his vain, insecure mother. Her fight against the encroachments of age grows ever more desperate and hysterical in Felicity Kendal's powerful portrayal.
Barry Stanton is too hairy and heterosexual to convince as the suave old bitchy queen, Pawnie. But elsewhere there is strong support. Cressida Trew is spot on as the sharp, lucid fiancée who realises (with honest regret) that she's wandered into the wrong camp. Best of all is Phoebe Nicholls as Florence's acerbically truth-telling chum, Helen.
To 7 June (0870 040 0046)
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
- 2 Stamford Hill council removes 'unacceptable' posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 3 Kim Kardashian 'nude pictures' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence 'The Fappening' scandal
- 4 Alex Salmond: 'The rocks would melt with the sun before I'd ever set foot in the House of Lords'
- 5 Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned into a PR disaster
Friends 20th anniversary: Alison Jackson photographs reunited cast
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written
Friends 20th anniversary: The highs and lows of the cast's careers since TV series ended in 2004
Friends 20th anniversary: Six things we wouldn't have without influential comedy series
Doctor Who, Time Heist, review: Keeley Hawes is marvellous but the Doctor is the real villain
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God