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The Vortex (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: The Vortex

Society: Chichester Festival Theatre (professional)

Venue: Noël Coward

Credits: By Noël Coward.

The Vortex 4 stars

Photo: Helen Murray

The relationship between troubled sons and brittle, sexually active mothers is a rich source for drama. Shakespeare exploited it in Hamlet. So did Chekhov in The Seagull. And anyone who thinks Noel Coward was all about witty froth would do well to remember that his take on the mother/son theme, The Vortex (1924) was his first major success. It’s serious, quite dark stuff too, just spiced with the occasional whiff of Cowardian irony.

Moreover, if you can cast a talented real-life mother and son (Lia Williams and Joshua James) then there’s bound to be some pretty potent chemistry.  Yes, we’re in plush, stereotypical Coward drawing room (design by Joanna Scotcher) with tea tables, comfy sofas and a piano on which James’s character Nicky plays extracts from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which dates from the same year as the play. Or at least that’s where we are until, along with some dramatic work with the revolve, it all disappears as we enter a bare-staged quasi nightmare with Lia Williams’s Florence.

It opens like a traditional drawing room drama with the cast of ten gradually assembling. Nicky, to everyone’s surprise, brings his new fiancée (Isabella Laughland)  home to meet his mother. There’s tension immediately and it later transpires that she and Florence’s lover know each other well. Also in the mix is an outrageously camp friend (Richard Cant having fun), a jazz singer, a family friend and Nicky’s very marginalised father.

It’s “a vortex of beastliness” in which jealousy is the norm and hardly anyone is reasonable with anyone else. There’s a lot of meaty subtext which would repay detailed study. The “closet scene” in which Nicky and Florence finally confront each other in a rawly empty, smoky  space is electric and we know that although promises are eventually extracted, the chances of their being kept are minimal. It’s a nuanced, ambiguous conclusion.

Williams, tall lithe and imposing glitters in this role and perfectly captures Florence’s shallow self-absorption along with her vulnerabilities. And James matches her beautifully. One isn’t surprised to read that he has, in the past, played both Konstantin and Hamlet. The support cast does a generally convincing job too.

The Vortex was originally a three act play. This production gives us a succinct version which runs for a continuous 90 minutes. Thus the pace never flags and it flows coherently towards its powerful final scene.


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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