The Mayfair home of wealthy socialite Florence Lancaster is the location for the opening scene of this revival of Noël Coward's 'The Vortex', directed by Peter Hall. It's the early 1920s, and though Florence is nowhere in sight, several close friends await her return. When Florence does appear she's accompanied by a handsome guardsman, Tom, who is less than half her age. Almost instantly, Florence orders cocktails to be served, administers to the needs of a twittering singer, answers phone calls from a number of the well-healed, and we recognise a confident woman who's used to being in the limelight and in control. At least that's the way it seems, but it's not long before cracks start to appear in Florence's comfortable existence.
It's her friend, Helen, who provides both some of the background and the first inkling of how things might go wrong. Helen knows that Florence is having an extramarital affair with Tom, but also knows that he doesn't love Florence in the same way that she loves him. And Helen points us to one of the basic themes of the play when she says to Florence “It's silly not to grow old when the time comes”.
Later, Florence's son arrives back from a stay in Paris, and announces that he's 'practically engaged' to a girl called Bunty. This arouses maternal jealousy, and sows the seeds of Florence's psychological and emotional downfall because, as we discover, Bunty and Tom are acquainted and when they all meet up for the weekend at Florence's country home, we know it can only end in trouble.
I don't care very much for plays about the idle rich and their trivial attempts at passing their time. Moreover, the era of the post-war 1920s in England conjures little in the way of real interest for me. I've also never been a great fan of Felicity Kendal who takes the lead here as Florence Lancaster, though like many other TV viewers, I enjoyed watching Ms Kendal as the perky and vivacious Barbara in the BBC sitcom 'The Good Life'.
Having laid bare and confessed my prejudices, I now have to do a volte-face, because 'The Vortex', is still surprisingly compelling and Ms Kendal shows her outstanding acting abilities in abundance, producing a poignant performance in the final act that wrenches sympathy from the hardest of hearts (mine included).
I'd thought that Kendal might just be (dare I say) a little too old to be truly the kind of 'older woman' who could still attract younger men. How wrong can anyone be? Ms Kendal is still stunningly attractive. Slender, elegant, agile and full of vigour, it's easy to see that Ms Kendal's Florence would be attractive to (almost) any man, young or old. But it's in the powerful final act, where Nicky confronts Florence that Kendal is simply superbe as she tells us she's “different from other women” and that “It can't be such a crime, being loved”.
Though Ms Kendal is the shining light in this production, she's extremely well-supported by a very able cast. Particularly impressive is Phoebe Nichols as the knowing friend, Helen, who seems to want something rather more than mere friendship from Florence. And Daniel Pirrie excels too as the nervy son, Nicky, whose insecurities have driven him to drugs, and provides the perfect counterpart in the denouement with Kendal. He also has one of the best lines when he says “I'm afraid I'm a little beyond aspirin”, when offered one by his unsuspecting mother.
When it was produced in 1924, 'The Vortex' was an overnight success. With the central character being a married woman who's having a fairly open affair right under the nose of her husband, and with a son more than dabbling in drugs, it must have shocked. Today, neither drug-taking nor extramarital sex cause much of a stir. But the play is still surprisingly relevant and modern because of the number of themes it covers, and the timeless nature of many of them. In particular, coping with ageing or personal weaknesses, and the relationships between parents and their offspring are just as important to modern audiences, if not more so, than they were back in the 1920s. So Peter Hall's excellent revival deserves the same kind of success as when the play was first produced.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "There isn't, alas, enough nervous electricity in Peter Hall's underpowered revival." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Compelling but not very well nuanced revival...Fortunately, Felicity Kendal, in riveting form...makes the evening satirically delightful." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "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." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is an evening that memorably moves from cocktails and laughter to the rawest of drama." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The play may be uneven, but Kendal’s performance decidedly isn’t. "