This rarely produced play was a shrewd, but challenging choice by Director Stuart Goodwin. Written by Noel Coward, and first staged in 1924, it titillated, outraged and divided opinion at the time, almost a century later I regard it as being amongst his best work. The Daily Mail contemporaneously dismissed it as “ a dustbin of a play”, The Times opined: “It is a study that has wit, observation, and a sincerity, leaping out between flippances, which is its peculiar merit.” Hannen Swaffer, called it “the most decadent play of our time”.
It is an intensely personal piece of work. Coward wrote it, acted in it, co-directed it and had to fight to prevent it from being banned. Coward gives full rein to his Wildean wit, intertwined with existential issues: the curse of aging, drug addiction, adultery, nymphomania, homosexuality and Oedipal tension. A middle -aged woman takes a young lover whilst her son spirals into the grip of cocaine addiction, also used as a metaphor for homosexuality, amongst the louche parties of the Jazz set. Think of a party thrown by Madonna, Boy George, and Keith Richards.
Ninety years on, despite the likes of Coronation St and East Enders normalising what was then scandalous subject matter, the script still packs a punch. It opens as a bitchy, gossipy, light comedy. But over the three acts the mood progressively darkens, so that by the end we are presented with a drug-addled and effete young man confronting his mother about her serial adulteries with lovers half her age in a dramatic passage that owes a debt to Hamlet’s anguished “closet scene” with Gertrude. “How can we help ourselves? We swirl about in a vortex of beastliness,” Nicky Lancaster rants.
Goodwin stylishly handles the play’s dramatic changes of mood in three acts well, and revels in an at times claustrophobic, overheated, hothouse atmosphere. The compressed second act set works particularly well in this regard. The languid opening and its sedate repartee is played for barbs rather than laughs, its throw away badinage anticipating something of greater moment.
The script lends itself to a period set, a sixties set, or contemporaneous one, and Goodwin roots the action in the 1920’s. The star of the show is Chris Commander, as Nicky Lancaster, as Noel Coward. He bursts onto the stage, an energetic bundle of energy. Flamboyant, effervescent, rakish and sallow. He commands the part, his emotions nuanced, his angular frame twisted to wring out every ounce of value from the script.
Nicky does not present as outlandishly effeminate, the script does the work for him. I should also mention the understated awkward tenderness he brings to his relationship with his cuckolded father, satisfyingly played by Alan Lane.
In a supporting role Jayne Lunn, as family friend Helen Savile, also shone. Detached from the madness around her, she is the anchor of the script, and production. Carrying a stylish flapper dress with some style, her second act confrontation with Nicky is an unexpected highlight of the show.
The role of Florence Lancaster, Nicky’s mother, is a great part, which is open to considerable interpretation depending upon the actress. Alison Daly assumes a matronly, bombastic strident persona, flirting with her young lover and making vacuous small talk with her house guests. Her vanity and insecurity abounds, and she rises to the challenge of playing off Commander’s extraordinary performance of self -loathing, self-doubt and abandonment, in the final act bedroom scene, admirably.
In the “Hamlet scene”, in which the Prince confronts his mother, Commander is stunning as he strips his mother of her dignity, beauty, youth and self-delusion leaving her with nothing but her mortality and guilt.
In supporting roles, Pawnie (Andy Tomlinson)), described by Coward as “an elderly maiden gentleman” entertains, and Florence’s toyboy, Tom (Dan Holyhead), is portrayed with apt immaturity, his lack of chemistry with Florence, instantly juxtaposed with his affection for Nicky’s temporary fiancée (Kira Mack). Wanda Harris’s androgynous butler Preston is a little gem, Clara Hibbert ( Valerie Tomlinson) is delightfully dotty.
The curtain falls with Nicky cradled in his mother’s arms, lamenting his unrequited longing for a maternal bond in an evening that manages to stay clear of melodrama, and memorably moves from cocktails, laughter and small talk to relationships and character laid bare in raw drama. A fine production from Stuart Goodwin, go and fill the remaining seats for the rest of the run to enjoy Christopher Commander’s outstanding Nicky, supported by an able company.
The Vortex runs till Saturday 4th February, ticket information: http://www.suttonartstheatre.co.uk/booking.htm