Mother/son duo Lia Williams and Joshua James are the main selling point in this fast-paced take on The Vortex at Chichester Festival Theatre
“I’ve grown up all wrong!”
I’m clearly too easily swayed when it comes to trying to steer clear of Noël Coward. Fresh from returning to Private Lives against my better judgement because of Rachael Stirling, I found myself booking in for The Vortex in Chichester because of Lia Williams. Not only that, there’s the added bonus of seeing her act against her son Joshua James as mother and son in this production. Plus Priyanga Burford! And Isabella Laughland, etc etc.
And whilst there is much to commend Daniel Raggett’s production in this relatively short run at the beginning of 2023’s Festival, there’s also that nagging voice in my head that I’m right to be wanting to see less Coward, even if I struggle to resist the casts. At the time, the queer coding and embrace of women’s sexuality resulted in scandalous success but nearly a century later, the essential problem remains of how to make Noël speak to now.
Raggett inserts contemporary references hither and thither but playing a bit of David Bowie isn’t enough to make it work. Instead, Williams’ resolutely modern Florence Lancaster jars horribly with the staging as she roars across the stage, you never quite believe that society would damn her for a predilection for affairs with hot young men. And James almost underplays her son Nicky, returning from Paris with an unexpected fiancée and a flaming secret but little impact.
Removing the intervals lends a certain paciness that doesn’t always work in the production’s favour either, there are several moments where you just wish there was time to just breathe a little and consider the shifting dramatic eddies. But despite Joanna Scotcher’s stylish design and a supporting company full of such talent, there’s just too much tinkering to let the Coward of it all actually work in the way it is supposed to. My wish for Coward adaptations to be more daring is clearly a futile one – I just need to remember this the next time one gets programmed with an actress I love.