Pop star Will Young is taking a real gamble making his professional stage acting debut, and even more so in taking on a character like rich and misunderstood musician Nicky Lancaster in Noel Coward’s savage 1924 play about London cocktail society. 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.
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.
Though privileged, Nicky is desperately unhappy. His mother Florence is a sophisticated but shallow, party-loving woman. Her predilection for the company of toyboy young men leaves her husband emasculated and emotionless. And her son doesn’t fare much better.
Young plays Nicky as a petulant, bitchy fop, a spoilt child, as opposed to a troubled young man, etched with pain. He rows with his wayward mother alright, but he may as well be whingeing for sweets rather than launching a desperate attempt to salvage what’s left of their relationship.
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).
Lez Brotherston’s opulent design exposes the shallow lives of these pretty young – and not-so-young - things. On a round, black and white set, complete with a dance floor, each character circles their prey buzzard-like, spitting out insults and waiting for the moment to swoop in for their next kill.
Alexandra Mathie gives the evening’s most accomplished performance as the sturdy, witty, yet deeply sad, confidante Helen. The actress embraces Coward’s acerbic wit, yet also manages to convey Helen’s deep-rooted respect and love for queen bee, Florence.
Likewise, 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. As her spouse, David Peart excels in the small but pivotal role of David. A master of dejected restraint, Peart expertly disguises his character’s pain; in a scene with Nicky, a simple tap on the shoulder means so much more.
Overall, director Jo Combes’ delicious production oozes quality from every pore. And, from the emptiness of the party scenes to the rage of the vitriolic emotional confrontations, we discover that, even if this group isn’t the most likeable bunch, there’s something deeply touching about them.
Including the former Pop Idol winner. Yes, Will Young fans can rejoice: he acquits himself admirably, aided and abetted by more seasoned, and undeniably brilliant, performers. You’ll be drawn into this Vortex too, and not simply for its celebrity casting.