Michael Grandage has a very hard act to follow as he takes over as the Donmar's artistic director from Sam Mendes. His predecessor's final two productions, Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night were of exceptional quality.
At first glance, it is not obvious why Grandage has chosen The Vortex as his opener. It is soon clear that this complements his predecessor's programming since it is a very Chekhovian play with characters that might have graced The Seagull or Uncle Vanya.
Christopher Oram's set design and costumes, together with the affected tones that Coward demands create an immediate 1920s art-deco feel. His second-act mural, reminiscent of Picasso, is a thing of considerable artistic beauty.
Grandage has cast the play with great care and seems to have got it absolutely right. Francesca Annis is excellent as Florence, a vain woman who cannot face ageing and happily betrays her husband with a man the same age as both the Century and her son.
Nicky, the son, was originally played by Coward himself in 1924 and the choice of Chiwetel Ejiofor (currently starring on screen in Dirty Pretty Things), to play the part pays off as he gives a great performance. This is a confused young man who tries to compensate for his mother's failure to love him by false cheeriness. His true despair cannot be hidden from those close to him for long.
The play comprises three relatively short acts with two intervals. It starts with Deborah Findley and Bette Bourne as Helen and Pauny, "poor relation" observers straight from Chekhov, talking about the family. Florence then makes her grand entrance with the very beautiful but rather vacuous, Tom (Mark Umbers). This is a love that cannot last. However, Florence (to whom "everyone is sacrificed") is too vain and self-deluding to recognise this fact, believing that she can manipulate everyone to achieve whatever she wishes as she has so often done before.
Life is not easy for mother or son. Nicky has brought a trial fiancée to meet his mother, the frisky Bunty, well played by Indira Varma, whose every facial movement tells a story. She too understands the main protagonists as if she were reading a book.
Through the first two acts, Florence and Nicky show increasing signs of instability although, interestingly, the only person who has any control over the former is her son. In the last act, they come together in her bedroom having lost their "loves" - one could as easily have said toys. It is no surprise to anyone except Florence that the upwardly-mobile Tom and Bunty have "reverted to type" and gone off together.
They then have to fight their way through a fiery last-act confrontation acted with great passion, much more like lovers than mother and son. Neither will cede any ground or remove their fragile façades to reveal truth. Their reconciliation and recovery of at least the hope of future happiness is a fitting finale.
Knowing about Coward's life, the subtext of homosexuality seems obvious, hardly hidden by his metaphors and enhanced in this production by the portrayal of the very camp, bitchy Pauny by Bette Bourne.
While not quite creating the amazing final productions that saw his predecessor win the best director award from the Evening Standard, Grandage has started with something that is special. This is particularly apparent for the great performances that he has drawn from his actors in one of Noel Coward's more serious plays, one that sometimes sears like something by Tennessee Williams.