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A CurtainUp London Review
Nevertheless, Kendal is justifiably one of the main attractions of this production. Her Florence Lancaster is a flamboyant socialite who, in spite of her vanity and absolute egocentric outlook, is quite charming. Played charismatically and arrayed in a series of dashing outfits, it is understandable why she is unfailingly the centre of attention. There are also some fine comic expressions of her narcissism, such as when, in fit of violent weeping, she catches a glimpse of herself in mirror and pauses to powder nose. As a woman refusing to acknowledge, let alone act, her own age, the incredibly well-preserved Felicity Kendal is cast with exactitude. However, this does sacrifice Florence's edge of overt desperation, as she actually can get away with looking a lot younger than her age, especially in the play's pre-Botox era.
Dan Stevens is excellent as the charming, slightly camp Nicky: Florence's nervy, spoilt son who has always had "everything he wants but never what he needs". Stevens plays Nicky with unexpected restraint which cleverly circumvents the obvious melodrama and makes his character's tragic impasse all the more affecting. Convincingly styled on Noel Coward himself, Stevens manages to encapsulate all the decadence and epicurean pleasure of the era but also the aching pain beneath. With an utterly lovable but adulterous and culpable mother, he is suffocated by the superficiality of his society and existence. As he exclaims: "the machinery of our lives will go on and gloss over the truth as it always does".
The rest of the cast, presenting a snapshot view of society, all evince strong performances as you would expect from a Peter Hall production. Particularly good is Phoebe Nicholls as the clear-sighted and sympathetic Helen who, as a true friend to Florence and Nicky, is the only person willing to tell them the unpalatable truth. She is a far cry from the twittering manners and hyperbolical politeness of the rest of society, including the catty remarks of Barry Stanton's Pauncefort Quentin and the odd, hammed-up hanger-on Clara Hibbert (Annette Badland).
Nicky's fiancée Bunty Mainwaring (Cressida Trew) and the object of Florence's infatuation Tom Veryan (Daniel Pirrie) are played with a nice symmetry and mutual sympathy. They are clearly two people of the same ilk, attracted to but ultimately repelled by the creatures of instability and brilliance: Florence and Nicky.
Compared to the spate of recent productions, this is possibly the most traditionalistic of Vortex revivals. With direction which focuses on clear, lucid performances, there is little innovative interpretation. Similarly conventional, the design by Alison Chitty features the habitual, luxurious space of the wealthy family with polished wooden surfaces and uncluttered rooms. Although open to criticism as too staid and unadventurous, this traditionalism does make the modernity of the play's themes all the more striking. By reinforcing the old-fashioned atmosphere, the drug-abuse, adultery and hints of homosexuality are reinvested with some of their 1920s shock value, which would not necessarily be felt by a 21st century audience.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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