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FringeReview UK 2023

The Vortex

Chichester Festival Theatre

Genre: Costume, Drama, LGBT Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre


Low Down

James tears into Williams impelling the final scene with classic ferocity, though ending on a question-mark. Both exquisitely pointed, and glaring with pulsing, contained energy, the effect’s like a journey to the edge of a long night. A triumphant opening to the 2023 Chichester season.

Directed by Daniel Raggett, Set Designer Joanna Scotcher, Costume Designer Evie Gurney, Lighting Designer Zoe Spurr, Sound Designer Giles Thomas, Movement Director Michela Meazza, Casting Director Lott Hines CDG

Rhapsody in Blue Arranger Thomas Bartlett, Voice Coach Charmian Hoare, Assistant Director George Jibson

Production Manager John Page , Costume Supervisor Fiona Parker, Props Supervisor Jamie Owens, CSM Nikki Colclough, DSM Anna Sheard, ASMs Sarah Follon, Zoe Lyndon-Smith

Till May 20th


Another Twenties, another Vortex. Daniel Raggett not only directs but – with the help of the two leading cast-members and others – has wholly re-edited Noel Coward’s The Vortex of 1924, running at the Chichester Festival Theatre till May 20th.

Restoring cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain’s office, opening out lines in manuscript and re-jigging a party-scene, Raggett has defined renewal before we get to the performance: which with real mother-and-son luminaries taking Florence Lancaster (Lia Williams) and Nicky Lancaster (Joshua James) has been hugely anticipated.

In Shakespearean court fashion we open with truth-telling Helen Saville (Priyanga Burford) sparring with scabrous Pauncefort Quentin (Richard Cant, acid bites in gordian hues) on moth-drawing host and friend Florence. Burford’s moral lodestar emerges in the way her savageries fall with a weight Cant’s gorgeous creation refuses.

Her compass is equally needed as Williams’ Florence cascades across her admirers with such focused vitality it takes truth-telling Helen to remind her, obliquely, that her latest lover is 24, her son’s age. And Nicky turns up unexpectedly, just because Florence wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. Williams riffles people with the inconsequence of flicking through Vogue, dispatching a female lover, offstage Inez Zulieta, on the phone with protests of affection. Just one cut sustained from the 1924 censor till now.

James exudes a distrait bid for sincerity between an inability to sustain piano-practice required for a career, and his more private sexual crisis. It’s masked by  cocaine-use (another cut restored here) first sniffed out by Helen, then Florence, and  announcing an imminently-arriving fiancée met in Paris, Bunty Mainwaring (Isabella Laughland).

Florence’s revealing horror is nothing to Bunty’s swift disappointment – and not just in the glittering hostility of Florence. Nicky’s reference to not being much for (bed) “byes” – sex – suggests this might unravel, especially with Bunty’s sexual forwardness here rebuffed, her keen intelligence brought out with warmth and sympathy by Laughland. It takes Helen a while to hear enough to realise Bunty’s her potential equal.

But just how quickly things unravel is revealed in Bunty meeting Florence’s lover Tom Veryan (Sean Delaney). Or rather meeting again. Whilst two couples realign so to speak, it’s a tribute to Coward’s innate capacity to show how Bunty’s superior to both admirers, how perhaps neither can return the understanding and warmth she brings.

But it’s also a tribute to how swiftly Coward absorbs and improves on contemporary influences. Bunty, an intelligent counties woman aspiring to be a writer in Paris, loudly echoes a character in Dorothy Sayers’ 1921 The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, where Lord Peter Wimsey first appears. There, a ‘decent’ young woman perpetrates ‘horrors’ of bad modernist art, also in the ‘wrong set’ till ‘rescued’ by a decent army man. At least here, this patronising image is ameliorated by Bunty’s intelligence and the blank incomprehension of Sandhurst-trained Tom, played with a nicely-judged sullen grace by Delaney.

Coward’s other borrowing is currently visible at the Orange Tree, where Somerset Maugham’s 1921 The Circle has been revived by Tom Littler. There, Kitty older than Florence’s character, acts as if still 27, the age she was when she ‘bolted’, and still entertains thoughts of lovers. Kitty deserted her son when he was five; he’s frozen. Coward’s Florence is a deeper creation, more disturbing, wielding more damage at close-quarters than sheer neglect. For one thing, Coward uses love as a weapon: Williams and James absorb it like Greek fire.

One great strength of this production is that it so visually follows the line of Coward’s classically-taut 90-minute drama: Joanna Scotcher’s revolve set features a swirl of 1920s bamboos and rich mahogany furniture – mixed with a 1960s chair or two – including a piano, but in the final scene these are deftly removed, along with the keenness of Zoe Spurr’s lighting, to leave a naked stage as Nicky confronts Florence, Gertrude/Hamlet-like, in her bedroom. Whilst the period’s a little ruffled, the drama’s stripped back to a timeless Greek tragedy. Evie Gurney’s costumes too follow this line, starting with the brilliance of Pauncefort and later party guests, ending with stark night-clothes.

Another highlight features a beautifully-chromaticised riff on Rhapsody in Blue by arranger Thomas Bartlett that Nicky plays, emphasising how out of tune he is, how he orchestrates his own distress – all inset in Giles Thomas’ sound envelope.

Coward hadn’t quite yet learned to be generous to servant characters like Preston (Esme Scarborough), and house-guest dramatist Bruce Fairlight (Evan Milton) wields only a wise saw or two. Clara Hibbert (Jessica Alade) is a study in self-absorbed artistry as Pauncefort is in self, Alade delighting in throwing off Clara’s headaches like shawls.

More tragic is David Lancaster (Hugh Ross), where Ross brings mute witness and desolation to a man once clever and commanding according to his son. He sees his wife embracing Tom, stares with pathos. Ross brings an appalled dignity to someone who lives more in his son’s report than he can in life, self-banished to the country, desperate to talk just a little to Nicky. Significantly though Nicky hardly acts on his own praise.

It’s just one façade-stripping gambit Nicky visits on his mother, as James tears into Williams impelling the final scene with classic ferocity, though ending on a question-mark. Both exquisitely pointed, and glaring with pulsing, contained energy, the effect’s like a journey to the edge of a long night. A triumphant opening to the 2023 Chichester season.