A succès de scandale in 1924, The Vortex was the play that made Noël Coward's name as both playwright and actor. With its portrayal of a post-First World War decadent society dabbling in illicit sexuality and drug taking, it caused controversy and delight in equal measure.
For many years afterwards it was neglected in favour of Coward’s glittering drawing-room comedies, but Stephen Unwin's production at the Rose is the fourth major revival of The Vortex in recent years, no doubt reflecting a growing interest in uncovering the darker undercurrents in the Master’s work.
The drama revolves around the relationship between Florence Lancaster, a middle-aged socialite in her latest adulterous affair with young soldier Tom, and her musician son Nicky, just returned from a bohemian year in Paris engaged to part-time writer Bunty, who it turns out had formerly had a fling with Tom. As Nicky says, the hedonistic carousel of this smart set with its jazz-dance soundtrack is more like ‘a vortex of beastliness’ into which careless people are sucked and their lives destroyed.
Neil Warmington’s design sets the tone of this brashly iconoclastic modernist world, with its overarching fractured picture frame, bright-blue brushstroke daubed around the stage and art deco furniture (though the surrealist Mae West lips-like sofa seems a bit out of time). In the first act Unwin’s production fails to energize the half-heartedly witty dialogue of Coward’s self-centred, superficial sophisticates, but the middle act deepens and engages more as the polished veneer starts to crack, followed by a devastatingly climactic Oedipal showdown between mother and son which comes across like a modernized closet scene from Hamlet.
Kerry Fox plays Florence as a self-deluding, vainly glamorous poser (as much in denial about her aging as Blanche DuBois) eventually forced to confront the truth about the damage her behaviour has done to her family, without quite nailing her inner insecurity. The outstanding David Dawson gives the coke-addicted Nicky a febrile charm and ambivalent sexuality indicating his deep-seated uncertainty about who he is. Jack Hawkins is the straight-backed toyboy Tom and Sophie Rundle the demurely determined Bunty.
And a movingly understated William Chubb hints that the almost forgotten husband/father David Lancaster knows what is going on but prefers to retreat to the healthy naturalness of the family country home rather than stay in their fashionable metropolitan apartment where artificiality holds sway.