Review: The Vortex, Rose Theatre Kingston

“He’s always taciturn after a matinée”

I’m unwilling to write it off just yet, but I really do have problems with the Rose Kingston as a theatrical space. Its very design seems inimical to fostering the sense of emotional connection that marks truly great productions and very few directors I have seen work there have been able to substantially address this. As the AD of the place, Stephen Unwin has tried more than most but in a play like The Vortex, which unusually for Noël Coward coils ever tighter into the most intense of two-handers in its final act, it proves a serious issue.

Coward’s 1924 debut work caused shockwaves with its portrayal of casual marital infidelity and cocaine addiction and though it may have lost some of that power now, it still has the power to move. Nicky Lancaster is a disaffected young music student who returns from a sojourn in Paris with a fiancée, a drug habit and an uncertain amount of sexual confusion. He is shocked on his arrival though, to find his mother Florence engaged in a heady affair with a much younger Guards Officer and determined to live her life free from societal pressure or marital responsibilities. Over the course of a weekend, their lives and the secrets they both possess clash to devastating effect.

Though the production never really moved me as I thought it might, it did have flashes of inspiration. There are several gorgeous touches like having Nicky play ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ as a desperate plea to his self-involved mother and making Rebecca Johnson’s über-honest Helen – unexpectedly the production’s highlight – not just Florence’s confidante but someone who would be more than just a friend. And it is moments like these that sit beautifully alongside the strong performances of the leads.

The divine Kerry Fox – an actress whose CV is admirably if frustratingly sparse – makes Florence a fearsomely determined figure, less flighty society hostess and more a woman utterly convinced of her infallibility, which makes the stripping back of her certainties all the more effective. And David Dawson nails the quicksilver changes of mood of Nicky, one moment the epitome of Coward-esque charm, the next lost in the haunting depths of his despair.

But where the show ought to ratchet up the intensity, the atmosphere is broken by the insertion of two regular-sized intervals which undo so much of the good work that has been done. And the other members of the company often just seem marooned on the platform of the stage, raised and removed from the audience and so not always able to bridge that gap to draw us into their world. Solid rather than superlative, the lead performances make it worth a visit.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with 2 intervals)
Booking until 2nd March

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