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Review Round-up: Will Apollo Fall into The Vortex?

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Following a regional tour, Peter Hall’s revival of Noel Coward’s hothouse drama, The Vortex, arrived at London’s Apollo Theatre on Tuesday night (26 February 2008, previews from 20 February).

Set against a decadent social backdrop in 1920s England, The Vortex follows the tempestuous relationship between middle-aged Florence Lancaster and her son Nicky. Florence’s appetite for young men is scorned by her hedonistic and effeminate son who yearns for her attention and disapproves of her apparent refusal to grow old gracefully. Originally staged in 1924, Coward’s play was surrounded by controversy and was saved from public censorship by Coward himself, who claimed the play was little more than a moral tract.

Felicity Kendal, who is best known for her television work, co-starring with Pam Ferris in Rosemary and Thyme and starring as the down to earth tomboy in the sitcom classic The Good Life, stars as Florence Lancaster, while Dan Stevens takes on the role of Nicky, a role Coward originally wrote for himself. Supporting performances come from Phoebe Nicholls, Annette Badland, Barry Stanton, Daniel Pirrie and Cressida Trew. Set design is by Alison Chitty, lighting by Paul Pyant.

Praise for this play went almost entirely to Noel Coward’s script which “still packs a punch more than 80 years on” and Felicity Kendal’s “tour-de-force performance”. Critics agreed that Kendal “mercilessly captures her character’s vanity and insecurity” and that “she is in sensational form”. Dan Stevens' portrayal of Nicky received a more varied response with some critics pointing to his “star quality and charisma” while others felt his performance was “bland” and underplayed. The supporting cast were also praised, particularly Phoebe Nicholls as the “tart and willowy” Helen. While praise for Coward’s work in providing “an evening that memorably moves from cocktails and laughter to the rawest of drama” was unanimous, Peter Hall’s revival was felt by some to be “underpowered”, partly due to Alison Chitty’s set design which was “functional rather than spectacular”. Despite these disappointments critics generally enjoyed a production that was “beautifully paced and well cast”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “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.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The play still packs a punch more than 80 years on, as Peter Hall’s new production starring Felicity Kendal proves … Hall stylishly handles the play’s dramatic changes of mood, and makes no attempt to disguise the fact that at moments of high emotion Coward’s dialogue can now sound excessively shrill. But even that contributes to the play’s overheated, hothouse atmosphere. Felicity Kendal has come a long way from the cheeky gurgling charm of The Good Life, and in the early scenes in which Florence Lancaster flirts with her young lover and prattles with her house guests, she mercilessly captures her character’s vanity and insecurity. Occasionally she overdoes the husky charm which can sometimes seem to be her default mode, but where it really matters, in that bruising last act, she is in sensational form, achieving moments of anguish and abandonment that send shivers down the spine. As her troubled drug addict of a son forces her to face up to her behaviour and the effect that it has had on others, she seems to age before our eyes, as all the false gaiety and fake emotion seep out of her and she is left only with the knowledge of her mortality and guilt. Dan Stevens is terrific too in Coward’s former role as the neurotic son, who has to acknowledge both his dependence on cocaine and the fact that he is a homosexual, though the dramatist had to tread warily in the latter case. Stevens brings a memorable combination of self-loathing and barely contained hysteria to the role, while the scenes of awkward tenderness with his cuckolded father, beautifully played by Paul Ridley, are very affecting. With strong support from Phoebe Nichols, Barry Stanton and Annette Badland as sharply observed members of Florence Lancaster’s circle of friends, this is an evening that memorably moves from cocktails and laughter to the rawest of drama.”

  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars)- “When it was first staged in 1924, Noel Coward’s melodramatic sensation shocked a first-night audience who had come in search of light comedy and were presented instead with “a dustbin of a play”, as one critic put it, about drug addiction and toy-boy adultery. It could never have that impact today … But there is nothing outdated or irrelevant about the refusal of Nicky’s mother Florence to accept her loss of youth and beauty, humiliating herself as she chases an uncaring beefcake lover exactly the same age as her son. Florence is played by Felicity Kendal in a tour-de-force performance that should set the phones in the box office ringing off the hook. This is an actress who normally specialises in tomboy cuteness, an improbably ageless innocent with an effortless allure. Here she transforms herself into an ageing, self-obsessed beauty, petulant and bitchy, pulling her own hair and growling with defiant frustration when she is challenged by “the utter foulness of growing old”, as her son puts it. Nicky is ably played by Dan Stevens, familiar from TV’s The Line of Beauty and Sense and Sensibility. Confident and debonair at the outset and degenerating into neurotic self-pity, he demands that Florence mother him in a tantrum as petulant as her own. This was the role that Coward wrote for himself, and it’s testament to Stevens’ talent that you cannot hear anything of Noel’s trademark clipped delivery in this performance – nor do you want to … The sets are functional rather than spectacular, as you would expect for a touring production. But the performances bring out writing that is as fresh and full of insight as the day Coward set it down. “We swirl about in a vortex of beastliness,” moans Nicky, blaming his mother for everything that has gone wrong in his own life. The language may have changed but there is nothing old-fashioned about the complaint.”

  • Michael Billington in the The Guardian (three stars)– “This is the third major revival of Coward's celebrated 1924 shocker in six years. But, even if repetition blunts the play's edge, Peter Hall's wily production is worth seeing for its reminder of Coward's historic ambivalence and for Felicity Kendal's high-octane central performance … Kendal's performance also motors this revival very successfully. Showing far more interest in photos of herself than in her returning son or his putative fiancee, her Florence starts as a woman encased in shrill vanity … Coward's play, you realise, is ultimately about the dangers of self-deception. And, even if Dan Stevens' Nicky initially seems more down-to-earth than up-in-the-air, he slowly reveals the spiritual flakiness and implicit gayness of this would-be artist. In a nice touch, Hall also implies that Florence's truth-telling best friend, deftly played by Phoebe Nicholls, is filled with thwarted lesbian passion. In stark contrast, Barry Stanton as a waspish socialite leaves one in no doubt of his sexual inclinations. He, in fact, seems the most honest character in a play that reminds one, in its portrait of the illusory vanities of the 20s smart set, that Coward was actually a late Victorian at heart.”

  • Paul Taylor in the The Independent - "There isn't, alas, enough nervous electricity in Peter Hall's underpowered revival. Instead of conveying a restless, neurotic temperament, Dan Stevens's initially bland Nicky looks ready for the diplomatic service. Despite hints that the character is gay, there's nothing to justify the toy-boy's description of him as "up in the air – effeminate". It's a slow-burn portrayal though, and comes into its own in the final clash with his vain, insecure mother. Her fight against age grows ever more hysterically deluded in Felicity Kendal's powerful portrayal. The double standard that castigates women for wanting a good time in middle age dates the play, but Stevens, in agonised lost-boy confusion, beautifully registers the emotional neglect that Nicky has suffered because of Florence's selfish priorities. The end here breathes the desolate atmosphere of Ghosts: a devastated mother forced to face the son she has helped to ruin. Barry Stanton is too hairy and heterosexual to convince as the suave old bitchy queen, Pawnie. But elsewhere the support is strong. Cressida Trew is spot-on as the sharp, lucid fiancée who realises (with honest regret) she's wandered into the wrong camp. Best of all is Phoebe Nicholls as Florence's acerbically truth-telling chum, Helen. Hall adds a novel and suggestive twist. In his version of the bedroom scene, Helen has become disinhibited by drink and, when she tells Florence "You're on the wrong track and have been for years", there's a hint in her over-fond caresses that she would like to offer more than a shoulder to cry on.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (three stars)-“This was the piece that back in 1924 made Noël Coward’s name as an actor as well as a dramatist, since he played his own leading character, the neurotic coke addict Nicky Lancaster. Then The Vortex was seen partly as a attack on a rackety postwar world, partly as the half-disguised confession of an author who, as he wryly said later, was himself taken for “a weedy sensualist in the last stages of physical and moral degeneration”. Now it seems worth reviving mainly for the last of its three acts: an updating of the closet scene in Hamlet, with an anguished Nicky berating his mother for committing serial adultery and, even worse, neglecting him. All else in the play – Florence Lancaster’s faltering affair with a man half her age, her son’s unraveling engagement to a girl who cares for him as little as he cares for her – is barely more than a means to this climactic end. And, yes, the scene does come to life in 2008, thanks mainly to the actress who plays the mother in Peter Hall’s revival: Felicity Kendal, whom one would call evergreen if she didn’t so honestly embody a woman losing her leaves, her looks and her lovers … Hall’s revival has the strengths we expect of him: clarity, fluency and a refusal to let characters veer into caricature. Barry Stanton, playing Florence’s gay friend, rejects the implicit invitation to camp it up. Daniel Pirrie, Florence’s current lover, is bored and shallow but not the obviously arrogant stud he might be. And Stevens begins by underplaying Nicky so much you’re left wondering why he’s variously called temperamental, effeminate, hysterical and a debauched wreck. But he rises to the last-act challenges almost as fully as Kendal, who until then has refused to trill, flounce or over-emphasise her credentials as the spoilt darling of the cocktail circuit. He sobs, shakes her, hurls her make-up across the bedroom and, you feel, would skewer Polonius if he were lurking behind the curtains. She begins the scene with a show of frozen defiance, but by its end is beaten, broken, humiliated, old. The play may be uneven, but Kendal’s performance decidedly isn’t.”

    - by Kate Jackson

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