Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Vortex

Noël Coward
Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames

David Dawson and Kerry Fox

Noël Coward’s The Vortex, a milestone in British theatre, was turned down by all the theatrical managements and he had to borrow money to stage it the tiny Everyman Theatre in Hampstead. The 24-year-old Coward said he wrote it to give himself a whacking good part.

The Lord Chamberlain thought the characters were too unpleasant and didn’t approve of a young middle class son upbraiding his mother for her immorality and wanted to ban the play because he felt “swirling about in a vortex of beastliness” gave a false impression of British society.

The first night in 1924 was a sensational success, establishing him instantly as playwright, actor and spokesperson for his generation. Gerald du Maurier, the then leading member of the acting profession, was horrified. “The young generation,” he observed “are knocking at the door of the dustbin.”

Nicky (David Dawson) comes back from Paris, engaged to a girl he doesn’t love. He discovers his mother (Kerry Fox) is having an affair with a young man no older than himself and who happens to be the ex-boyfriend of his fiancée. She discovers he is a drug addict. He is also a homosexual, but this is understated because homosexuality was illegal in the 1920s.

Nicky blames his mum for what he is. “You’re an awfully rotten woman, really,” he says and tells her to give up having young boyfriends. The third act owes much to Hamlet’s scene with his mother and the final moments on which the curtain falls recall Mrs Alving’s scene with her son in Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Stephen Unwin’s plodding production, badly designed, badly costumed, and mainly miscast, has not got the measure of Coward’s brittle, sophisticated world. The performances lack focus, energy and style. The audience laughed in all the wrong places on the press night, which didn’t help.

Nicky should be a perfect role for David Dawson, but why is he standing on the furniture and doing so much abrupt and empty shouting?

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch