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A CurtainUp London ReviewReview
The Vortex

by Lizzie Loveridge
He may have had everything he wanted, but he hasn't had everything he needs.
-- Helen Saville talking about Nicky
Now I haven't seen Noel Coward's play The Vortex since I was at school but here it is revived for the second time in two years, first in New York and now as the inaugural production at the Donmar by Michael Grandage, the new Artistic Director. So we have a 1920s play showing the present generation that they were not the first to have invented cocaine or toy boys. My colleague, Les Gutman has summarised the play in New York (see link below), so I have only the details of the London production to elucidate.

Some of the older members of the audience were at a loss to understand the casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose family are from Nigeria, as the son of two white parents. I understand why it bothers them but it does not bother me. In the same way that I am asked to accept that short, dark Adrian Schiller is the son of tall, blonde Julian Glover in the current production of Macbeth, I can make the leap that Chiwetel Ejiofor is Francesca Annis and Michael Hadley's son. I shall have no problem with Adrian Lester as Henry V when Nicholas Hytner makes a similar point to Grandage in his first production as Artistic Director at the National. The acting of these black actors will transcend issues of ethnicity.

I did however muse on whether the casting was a deliberate ploy by Grandage to imply that Nicky was Florence's son by one of her lovers and that this fact was widely known. But this makes a nonsense of the last act where Nicky confronts his mother with the discovery of her serial adultery. Could it be that Nicky was adopted into an unconsummated and unsatisfactory marriage? But there is no textual reference to substantiate this.

What we have from Chiwetel Ejiofor is a modern performance of a troubled boy on the edge of a breakdown and dependent on drugs. He is excellent, just the right amount of highly strung snappiness. By contrast the rest of the cast are playing 1920s mannered, staccato, Coward types, all divine and frightfully, frightfully with a flick of a long cigarette holder. They are wonderful too, but not in the same production. So here is a mismatch. The other issue, and remember Coward himself played the role of Nicky, is one of homosexuality. Why has Nicky gone off the rails? It has been suggested that the engagement to Bunty Mainwaring is a denial of his homosexuality which is what is really troubling him. There is no suggestion of homosexuality in Chiwetel's performance.

I liked Francesca Annis as the selfish and shallow Florence, the vain woman who cannot face up to ageing and the loss of her beauty, although I do not think Coward liked her at all and the portrait is a cruel one painted in a harsh light. Deborah Findlay contrasts as her less physically attractive but better balanced and perceptive friend, Helen Saville. Bette Bourne, as Pauncefort Quentin, is a vain old queen, and stylishly over the top, "simply divine dahling!" (stet)

The set is a stylish collection of designer leather, wood and steel with period murals dominating the country house scene. The clothes too are period accurate. What Grandage has done here is to give us a talking point, a production which stimulates discussion and thought.

The Vortex in NY

The Vortex
Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Michael Grandage

Starring: Francesca Annis, Chiwetel Ejiofor
With: Deborah Findlay, Michael Hadley, Toni Kanal, Nina Sosanya, Mark Umbers, Indira Varma, Daniel Weyman, Bette Borne
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Musical Direction: Julian Philips
Movement:Alexandra Reynolds
Sound: Fergus O'Hare for Aura
Running time: Two hours with two intervals
Box Office: 020 7369 1732
Booking to 15th February 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th December 2002 Performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube Station: Covent Garden)
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