The Vortex – February 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre

Date: Monday 18th February 2013

This is another good production by the Rose. It was a controversial play when first put on stage, but after nearly ninety years the adultery and drug-taking seem more appropriate to a soap opera, so the tension has to come from the relationships, and that depends heavily on the characterisations. The choices made in this production seemed to emphasise the comedy at the expense of the darker side, so while I accept this interpretation, I felt it was weaker than other productions we’ve seen. Still, it was an enjoyable evening, and I do think they deserve better audiences.

The set was nicely done. At the centre of the stage was a large square platform made to look like a blank canvas, thrust forward a few feet into the pit area. There were large studs round the sides and streaks of blue paint on the edges around the central acting space. Two corner pieces of a large picture frame were positioned above and behind – the one on the right leaned a little drunkenly inwards – while a small piece of frame was positioned just behind the platform at ground level.

The opening scene was set in Florence’s drawing room at the Lancaster’s town house. The furniture was rampantly 1920s Art Deco, with a red lips sofa, chairs and enormous stool seat. A gramophone and some records stood on the floor front left, and there were double doors standing in splendid isolation centre back. Other furnishings included a female nude lamp stand, period telephone and lots of cigarettes.

The second act was a similar room in the Lancaster’s country house, and the difference was telling. An old-fashioned fireplace stood centre back with two small padded stools in front, there was a piano on the right and a table with two chairs on the left. The style was much older and suggested a more traditional household. The third act, in Florence’s bedroom, was more flamboyant, with lots of cushions and throws. The bed was in the centre, with a dressing table to the right and a window back left.

The simplicity of the set was refreshing, and certainly allowed for quick changes, although as they took intervals between each act that wasn’t really an issue. I notice that many of the Rose’s own productions tend to use picture frames in one way or another, which raises the question in my mind of whether they’re truly comfortable with such an open space yet? Having said that, I’ve liked the sets very much, and while I prefer period pieces such as this play to have more elaborate sets, this one did the job very well.

The performances were all fine too. David Dawson was nicely nervy as the son, Nicky, while the young lover Tom, played by Jack Hawkins, was suitably virile. The two ‘sensible’ women, Helen and Bunty, were well portrayed by Rebecca Johnson and Sophie Rundle respectively. Coward packed this play with minor characters whom we don’t really get to know, and although the weekend party in the country would have been a bit thin without them, the poor actors don’t get much to do.  Even Florence’s husband is hardly to be seen, although William Chubb got across this poor chap’s unhappy personality very well in his short time on stage.

I felt the main weakness was in the portrayal of Florence, Nicky’s mother. Kerry Fox was fine with the early scenes, showing us her character’s shallowness and need to be admired by all and sundry. In the final scene, however, I felt there was no discernible change. She’s meant to be so shaken by discovering Tom’s ‘unfaithfulness’ (and just how can a lover be unfaithful to an adulterous wife?) that she almost breaks through her delusions to a more truthful existence. This just didn’t happen from where I was sitting. We seemed to be going through an interminable closet scene from Hamlet, with the arguments going round in circles and not reaching any definite resolution.

Both Steve and I felt this was a valid interpretation of the scene, showing a vicious circle in which nothing would have changed, but it wasn’t as strong a version as we’ve seen before. We didn’t feel the son was near to killing himself, so the tension just wasn’t there; perhaps they’ll tighten this up during the rest of the run.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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