Felicity Kendal’s stage career has consistently challenged her television sitcom wholesomeness, not least in her recent collaborations with Peter Hall as director: Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, Esme in David Hare’s Amy’s View and now, most remarkably of all, perhaps, Florence Lancaster in Noel Coward’s The Vortex.
Florence is a married bitch of an actress with a musician son, Nicky, whose return from a debauched year or two in Paris prompts a split with her toy boy lover – he is the latest in a string of them – and an incestuous bedroom showdown with the raw emotionalism of the closet scene in Hamlet or the wound-dressing flare-up in The Seagull.
No wonder the Lord Chamberlain reached for his red pencil in 1924. But Coward’s triumph was the launch pad of his astonishing career. The writer renowned for “cocktails and laughter” always added “but what comes after, nobody knows...” Florence is scatty and superficial, yes. But she is also sex-mad, deeply unhappy and doomed. Felicity Kendal sounds these blue notes with terrifying plausibility, her hair mussed, her face streaked with mascara, and with a new register of growling ferocity in her voice.
As Nicky, Dan Stevens bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Coward himself – tall, elegant, hair swept back in a silken coiffure – but his piano-playing is a little too obviously recorded (“Shall I woo you with a little Scryabin?”) and he is not as stoned or as damned (“I’m afraid I’m a little beyond aspirin”) as was Rupert Everett in Philip Prowse’s sensational 1989 production. But Stevens has star quality and charisma, no question.
The rest of Hall’s production is beautifully paced and well cast, if a little on the dowdy, over-aged side. Phoebe Nicholls is tart and willowy as Florence’s sidekick Helen Saville, but if affectionate arm-stroking on the comfy chair is supposed to imply Sapphic tendencies, I think more should be made of it, or probably less. Annette Badland is the tumultuous singer Clara Hibbert, all smiles, chest heaving and dramatic gestures, while Barry Stanton smoulders benignly as the maidenly salon creeper “Pawnie.”
The respectable partners of Florence and Nicky, drawn into this “vortex of beastliness,” are Daniel Pirrie as Tom Veryon and Cressida Trew as Bunty Mainwaring, both excellent, and only too happy to revert to type, and each other, after the disastrous dance party and game of mah-jong.
Alison Chitty’s design in a dark green void – a huge vase of calla lilies in the first act, a solid oak staircase in the second, a respectable bedstead in the third – conjures the world of domestic and social virtue represented by Florence’s poor, dull old husband (Paul Ridley) rather than the hectic glamour of the jazz age. This makes the final impact of the play far more depressing and joyless than you’d expect with Coward.