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.
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