4 stars out of 5
Chichester Festival theatre
Lia Williams and her son Joshua James make a scintillating double act in a resonant revival of the 1924 hit
There’s a tableau in this production of The Vortex where the characters, in gorgeous party clothes, pose like an Annie Leibovitz cover for Vanity Fair. And none of Noël Coward’s characters is as vain as Florence Lancaster.
From the moment Lia Williams’s magnetic protagonist appears with her young lover Tom – wearing matching aviator outfits – her self-regard is 100 proof. She takes phone calls from people she pretends to like and callously flirts with her friend Helen, who is clearly yearning for her. When her son Nicky returns from a year abroad and announces that he’s engaged, she jealously asks: “Do you think she’ll like me?”
Coward wrote his first hit play, savaging the jazz age’s empty heart, after a life-changing trip to New York taught him the value of pacy dialogue. Daniel Raggett’s production wastes not a second, Florence’s decadent circle flitting around her like wasps at a picnic. None are more affecting than Richard Cant’s Pawnie who drops devastating witticisms yet emits the desperately fragile happiness of the fringe figure. “Everyone is sacrificed to Florence,” he observes.
Nicky, played by Williams’s real-life son Joshua James, suffers most. He sits at the piano playing a ragged distortion of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, dark shadows beneath his eyes hinting at his secret vice. The scandalous drug use that nearly had the play banned now feels the most dated of its elements, and even for the time this fast set’s reaction to cocaine surprises, recalling the tone of a public safety advert.
Williams and James offer a scintillating double act, however, and as the quips die away shades of Ibsen stalk a swirling psychodrama that contrasts the characters’ frantic energy with their lackadaisical morals. Joanna Scotcher’s sumptuous house-party set empties until there’s just a full-length mirror, then nothing at all but mother and son, locked in their climactic Hamlet-and-Gertrude confrontation.
It’s a struggle to believe that Nicky is only just noticing his mother’s sexual transgressions (was he really that unworldly before he went to Paris?) but their tragic failure to connect in a distracted age is real and resonant. Ninety-nine years on, this vortex still has pull.