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The Vortex, Rose Theatre, Kingston


A collapsed and fragmentary picture frame in bright yellow forms the shattered border of Neil Warmington's striking design for this incisive and acidly entertaining revival by Stephen Unwin of The Vortex, the play which catapulted Noel Coward to success and notoriety when it opened in 1924.

It's a visual statement that instantly establishes an atmosphere of jagged dislocation for this Jazz Age drama as do the red-lips sofa and the white canvas-like floor edged with blue, freely sloshed brush-strokes.

The décor is symbolic of a woman desperate to cling on to her youth and of broken moulds and the excellent cast communicate the comic strain of bourgeois between-the-wars fast living as they bitchily coruscate on thin ice.    

How would you feel if you arrived home from a year in Paris and found that your mother, who is as addicted to adulation from young men as you are now secretly hooked on cocaine, was having an affair with a dishy Guards Officer of your own age? That's the situation confronting Nicky Lancaster, Coward's protagonist. In our own era of metro-sexuality and botox, society hostesses could even, with impunity, pick up their son's male cast-offs. 

But Coward was breaking strong theatrical taboos here and Unwin shows that this Twenties equivalent of Look Back In Anger can still pack a serious punch. Is the cocaine habit a coded way of implying that Nicky, now engaged to a fetching but standard-issue girl, is gay? 

In a performance of mercurial brilliance, the camp, spikily elfin David Dawson pulls you terrific immediacy into the hero's jangled psychological confusion. This actor can do sudden surges of Oedipal hissy fit; he can do moments of haunting, lost intensity. 

When Florence says of her young lover “Of course he needs knowing”, Dawson's desolately wistful “So do I” opens up whole bleak vistas of emotional neglect.  Rather than emphasise the driven, faintly hysterical side of the mother, the splendid Juno-esque Kerry Fox valuably stresses her formidable will-power and the determined blindness to the needs of other people as when, in this version, she soaks up a full kiss on the lips from her tartly penetrating confidante (pitch-perfect Rebecca Johnson) while serenely disregarding the possibly lesbian devotion it betokens. 

The raw mother-son show-down on the maternal bed reminds you as much of Ghosts as of Hamlet – as Dawson, half-flayingly, half-tenderly, exposes to her to the ruin she has partly caused.  A spot-on revival, warmly recommended.  

To March 2; 08444 821 556