Pop Idol winner Will Young made his stage acting debut in a much-anticipated Manchester revival of Noel Coward’s 1924 play The Vortex, which opened last night (Monday 22 January 2007, previews from 17 January) at the Royal Exchange as part of the theatre’s 30th anniversary season (See News, 22 Jun 2006).
In Coward’s savage portrayal of 1920s cocktail society, Young plays musician Nicky Lancaster, who loses his fiancée to his sophisticated mother Florence’s toyboy lover. The Vortex (the title refers to the "youth vortex of beastliness") launched the then 25-year-old Coward’s career as a playwright and leading man.
Overnight critics were divided about the success of Young’s performance. While some praised the pop star for creating a touching character and bringing out the repressed homosexuality other actors in the role have “glossed over”, most agreed Young did not invest enough rage in Coward’s own “angry young man”. Some also noted that, while Young was brave to tackle such a complex role, he is simply too inexperienced to rise to the challenge. However, they were all impressed by the performances of Diana Hardcastle as his mother and the supporting cast in director Jo Combes’ production.
Glenn Meads on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “Boldly stepping into Coward’s shoes, Young delivers a much better performance than you have any right to expect. It’s not an easy role to carry off. But, while Young displays a considerable amount of charm and bite, in equal measure, he fails to muster any sympathy for his character’s situation and resultant inner turmoil…. Still, if the depths of emotion aren’t plumbed, there’s plenty to appreciate on the surface. Coward’s dialogue positively crackles, and Young relishes each line in his verbal spars with socialite Bunty Mainwaring, his ‘intended’ (a rich portrayal from Laura Rees)…. Alexandra Mathie gives the evening’s most accomplished performance as the sturdy, witty, yet deeply sad, confidante Helen…. Diana Hardcastle captures Florence’s self-centred absorption with ease but also lets us glimpse the vulnerability beneath the immaculate hair, make-up and party attire…. Jo Combes’ delicious production oozes quality from every pore.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (2 stars) - “While Young doesn't disgrace himself, it seems absurd to expect a stage debutant to measure up to the part of this hedonistic Hamlet in Oxford bags…. Coward certainly pours everything into Nicky. He makes him a febrile, drug-dependent neurotic with an erratic, pianistic talent. But, in place of the quivering, sexually equivocal coke-head created by Coward, Will Young gives us a plaintive little-boy lost. He simply doesn't have the temperament or technique to lend the big set-to with his mother the right soul-baring intensity. No blame attaches to Young: only to director Jo Combes, who cast him in a part beyond his experience. Fortunately, Diana Hardcastle more than has the measure of Flo. She captures all the heroine's sexual vanity…. But… also conveys the pathos of a superfluous woman trained for nothing but survival in an aimless social vortex.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (3 stars) – “Young’s performance is no disgrace, but as Nicky Lancaster… he displays considerably less glamour and urbanity than he usually does in his more familiar persona as intelligent yet unassuming pop star…. Young never shows us the rage that drives Nicky to violent confrontation with Florence. He gives us petulance rather than pain, self-pity rather than rage, and his light voice often seems underpowered and lacking in colour. What’s more, because we never feel Nicky’s despair, his attack on his mother begins to seem shallow, spiteful, even faintly misogynistic. But if the production’s heart feels hollow, there are still moments to relish. As Florence’s acerbic, steadfast confidante Helen Saville, Alexandra Mathie excels, hiding a poignantly hopeless repressed passion for her friend behind arid humour and bitter candour. Diana Hardcastle’s Florence is a dazzling ice angel in beaded pale aqua…. She meets her antithesis — and her nemesis — in Nicky’s fiancée, Laura Rees’ delicious bohemian Bunty Mainwaring, vampiric with her bonnet of shiny black hair, her mouth the colour of a bruised damson, and filled with bruising truths. They bring to the production the right brittle sense of style; but we need to see more of the suffering beneath the shiny surface.”
Lynne Walker in the Independent – “The buzz surrounding the Royal Exchange Theatre's revival is less to do with the writer's exposé of the hedonistic goings-on and fashionable depravity of the idle classes than with the stage debut of another celebrity, the former Pop Idol, Will Young. It was a gamble rather than logical casting by the director, Jo Combes. In many ways Young is perfect in the part of Nicky Lancaster, the spoilt, heroin-shooting boy, emotionally adrift…. But, where Coward surely dazzled in his understated, subtle delivery… Young merely veers between a bright smile and a crumpled expression, pouting petulantly. His slightly fey mannerisms convey just about enough of the complex sexuality of his latently homosexual role, but there's little hint of the boyish bubbliness or urbane veneer which might have attracted him a fiancée such as Bunty Mainwaring (given a feline gloss by Laura Rees). Young is greatly helped by the rest of the cast. Diana Hardcastle gives a compelling performance as his calculating, socialite mother…. Their final, wretched encounter… is searing in its intensity…. The dry, droll wit of Florence's long-suffering friend Helen is perceptively captured by Alexandra Mathie and David Fielder's camp, eccentric ‘Pawnie’ Quentin cheers up the cocktail hour…. The hurly-burly of the tricky weekend house-party dance is seamlessly handled, although splitting the three short acts into two parts makes for an awkward break.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “It has taken more than 80 years and the performance of Will Young, the gay pop idol who has never acted on stage before, to bring out the full truth about Nicky Lancaster, Noel Coward's angry young man in The Vortex… Jo Combes' ingenious in-the-round production… generates frissons of surprise…. For once Coward did much more than make his languid sophisticates figures of witty fun. Yet those audiences and those critics turned blind eyes to one crucial fact, at which Coward, in an age of strict stage censorship, could only hint, and of which Will Young now makes us provocatively aware…. Young is surprisingly weak-voiced at times and he delivers his tirades with insufficient emotion or fury, but this brave, remarkable performance is charged with the right impotent despair. In an absolutely brilliant directorial stroke, Combes implies that Nicky's addiction is not risky cocaine but life-threatening heroin. The Vortex therefore acquires a fresh, stinging, contemporary relevance. Miss Hardcastle, the best Florence I have seen, floats sexily around in a haze of self-adoration and a shimmering dress…. This Vortex, with its delectable period songs and style, ought to be London-bound.”
- by Caroline Ansdell