Veiled hints of incest. Hysterical young men on dope. A confrontation between a toyboy-obsessed socialite and her wasted son that seems more like a showdown between two jealous lovers. Family breakdown. Sex and drugs and – the Charleston? Welcome to the “vortex of beastliness” stirred up by 25-year-old Noel Coward in 1924, when he burst upon the world with his first big stage hit.
“The Vortex is an incredibly brave play to have written at a time when nobody ever depicted anything like that on a stage. A young man snorting coke and his mother having an affair with one of his friends? It wasn’t the done thing.” Felicity Kendal, who plays flighty Florence Lancaster, the glamorous egotist who drives her son Nicky (Dan Stevens) from the upper echelons of the social whirl to a bleak pit of despair, clears a space for me on an old settee. We’re in an unglamorous downstairs storeroom at producer Bill Kenwright’s west London office on a very chilly morning.
“I’m still wheezing a bit,” she smiles, “maybe we should jog on the spot to get you warm!” Instead, she curls up in her hooded tracksuit to tell me about her latest West End venture, a slight vocal croak the only sign of a recent flu bug.
Good parts for women
I feel drawn to Kendal’s natural warmth, mixed with that familiar brand of earthy intelligence and elfin-faced femininity which, in her time, has seen her described as “the nation’s sweetheart” and voted “Rear of the Year” in 1981, all of which went with the sex symbol image she exuded after shooting to sitcom fame in 1975 as dungaree-clad Barbara Good in The Good Life. “Well, of course, all that kookiness wasn’t me at all, it was just acting,” she says while running a hand through her blonde hair and focussing her thoughts on Coward and how he changed the face of British theatre in the Twenties with The Vortex in the same way that John Osborne did in the Fifties. “This was dark and disturbing – in tune with the post-Second World War generation – and he could create scandalous characters like Florence Lancaster when women were just coming out of their corsets and leading openly sexual lives.”
We’re both warming to the subject. I’m also making a mental note that I’ve resolved not to ask the two obvious personal questions that usually get thrown at Kendal. She’s reading my mind. “I’m always asked two questions: did The Good Life hold you back and why aren’t there any good parts for older women today? Well the answers are: no, it didn’t, and yes, there are lots of parts, especially in theatre.”
She’s not kidding. Aside from guest starring as Lady Clemency Eddison in the next Doctor Who series, Kendal has mostly confined her television acting of late to her green-fingered lady sleuth in Rosemary and Thyme. Now a ridiculously fit-looking 61-year-old grandmother (“I just do yoga, walk George, our dog, and keep myself busy”), it’s in theatre where Kendal has always taken risks, monstrous Florence being the latest in her growing gallery of flawed women of a certain age. “It’s true. In theatre I’ve got to the point where I’m more comfortable then I’ve ever felt before. I don’t know why. Maybe the roles simply match me very well.”
Indeed, in 2000 Kendal teamed up with Frances de la Tour in Coward’s Fallen Angels to play pampered middle-aged wives driven to champagne hysteria by the impending visit of their former lover. (“How gorgeously, impishly, hilariously frivolous they both turn out to be,” wrote Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer). A year later she was back in Shaftesbury Avenue taking over from Diana Rigg in the West End transfer of Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy, in which she was both fragrant and acrid as Flora, a widowed mother trapped by life’s disappointments. A triumphant tour-de-force followed in 2003 when she played Winnie in Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s babbling woman buried up to her neck in a mound of earth. Her last West End outing was yet another monstrous mother – Esmé Allen, the self-centred actress in David Hare’s Amy's View, a role originated by Judi Dench.
“I’m loving playing different kinds of creatures and never again having to be the love interest. The fact audiences might even hate your character only adds to the fun!” says Kendal, reflecting on the distance she’s travelled as an actor since The Good Life, and from her childhood when she says she was “thrown on the stage when I was nine months old by my parents”, who were actors running a touring theatre company in India.
Collecting a clutch of awards along the way (including a CBE), much of Kendal’s theatrical journey involved creating roles in plays by the likes of former partner Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and Simon Gray. Her second husband, the Texan-born theatre director Michael Rudman, directed her in several productions, including Fallen Angels. But the long-distance driving force has always been Sir Peter Hall, who has guided her through Happy Days, Amy’s View and now The Vortex. Their working relationship began at the National Theatre just after The Good Life had finished: Kendal was Constanza in Amadeus opposite Paul Scofield’s Salieri and Simon Callow’s Mozart, and Desdemona to Scofield’s Othello.
“Peter has had more influence on my career than The Good Life ever did,” she reflects. “After the National, we did so much together, from Feydeau farce in the West End to The Seagull and Waste at the Old Vic. I didn’t believe in myself for years. But he’s the one who always said, ‘this is the way you should be going’."
Tall, dark & serious
“We both feel that theatre is where our roots are. Peter probably sensed that in me very early on, when it could have appeared that I was just interested in being famous on television. I always think he sees me as a tall, dark, serious actress, which is who I probably am underneath.”
Delivering Winnie’s seriously tragi-comic monologue in the Hall-directed Happy Days turned into a watershed moment. “It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever done. Beckett writes so accurately about a human brain becoming confused that it’s easy to become confused yourself. Once it clicked though, it was wonderful. I’m sure a lot of people came expecting to see me being kookie in a happy Noël Coward musical, but once they’d got over the shock, the response was tremendous. I suppose the lesson is that you should go for what you are scared of.”
So who’s afraid of Florence Lancaster in Coward’s savage portrait of a frivolous society hooked on appearance, fashion and youth? “Well she is terrifying – a woman who is not an actress but spends her entire life acting. Only at the end do you see behind the façade, her desperate fear of getting old.”
Not that getting old scares Felicity Kendal. “Not at all. I just want to continue working and being with my family,” she beams, her eyes lighting up with amusement. “Mind you, there was a moment the other day when I was coughing my guts up and didn’t want to take the dog for a walk and I thought, ‘is this what it’s like?’ Thankfully I’m not there yet!”
The Vortex starts performances at the West End’s Apollo Theatre on 26 February 2008 (previews from 20 February).
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