The tragedy version of Hay Fever

Noel Coward is not all light frivolous entertainment. See The Vortex if you don’t believe me.

One of my pet hates is wooden formulaic amdram. This typically involves using the same few authors from the same set list of works deemed to be permissible for amdram. You will often see me write a play off when I go “Oh no, not another bloody Priestley” or “Not a bloody Christie”. And you will often see me put Noel Coward on this list. But that’s not a reflection on Coward itself – only the way his plays are routinely typecast is light farce. He is actually one of the playwrights I have the most respect for. When the rest of the country was united in celebration in 1938, he was one of the few to suggest maybe a deal with Hitler wasn’t such a good idea – and so bagged place on the Nazi death list. His songs went far beyond entertainment like Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage – he could switch between being bitingly satirical and movingly sentimental, and did a few you’d never guess were his.  (And, okay, he eventually became a tax dodger, but let’s skip over that. Tax dodgers weren’t such big hate figures back them.)

The Vortex is one of Coward’s earliest plays, written the same time as Hay Fever. In one way, the two plays have a lot in common. In Hay Fever, the story centres round the Bliss family, all complete drama queens, immersing themselves into one overblown affair after another, with scarcely a real sentiment or emotion amongst them. Likewise, in The Vortex the story centres on Florence and Nicky Lancaster a mother and son very similar to their Hay Fever equivalents. But there is one very important difference between the two. The Bliss family blissfully live in a bubble of self-delusion that no-one or nothing can burst. Not so for the Lancasters. Reality catches up, and when the bubble bursts, it bursts in the cruellest possible way. For Florence is a model/socialite desperately trying not to grow old through affairs with men now as young as her own son. Nicky is slowly wrecking his own life through drugs, lack of ambition, and an ill-considered engagement. And Florence’s husband David, far from living in his own fantasy world, is reduced to a broken man by his wife’s infidelity.

The Vortex has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by the runaway success of Hay Fever, but one person who has not forgotten it is Stephen Unwin, artistic director of The Rose, Kingston. (And before you ask, no, that’s not why I was in London. I went to London because East Coast asked me if I wanted a £20 return ticket, and I said “okay”.) This theatre has only been going since 2008, but it has already attracted a lot of attention and respect from their peers. The theatre is loosely modelled on the layout of the earliest London theatres like the original Rose Theatre (which was very similar to its more famous neighbour, the Globe). There is seating on three levels in a horseshoe shape, in immediately in front of the stage is the budget-friendly but arthritis-unfriendly pit cushions. Before you go rushing for your pit cushion seats, I must warn you the cushion is not included – you are booking a piece of floor to sit on, whether you have a cushion depends on whether you brought one. Bit of a shame, because watching a play of a theatre-supplied bean bag would have excellent novelty value, but pit cushions remain a different – and cheap – way of watching professional theatre in London.

Anyway, enough about cushions and bean bags, back to the play. It’s a three-act play, and for most of the first act I was sceptical. There is a convention amongst three-act plays of the time that the supporting characters appear first and discuss the leading characters in detail to build up for their appearance. This is what happens here, but Florence and Nicky are both very complex characters, and the beginning of the play attempts to discuss the mother and son in their full complexity. Unfortunately, I ended up losing track of who was discussing who, whilst all the time wondering when something interesting was going to happen. This might have been fine for the expectations of a 1920s audience but doesn’t work quite so well for a modern audience. One can hardly blame Coward for writing for a 1920s audience in the 1920s, but this is one of the reasons to beware of anyone who demands new writers use the three-act structure of early 20th century plays as some sort of gold standard.

But once it gets going, it really gets going. The slow opening of the play might be dated, but everything else is ahead of its time. The self-destructive nature of the Lancasters and their friends is about as different as can be from a stereotypical Coward production, and yet for more engaging. The fruitless struggle to stay young and hip is just as prevalent today as it was then, if not more so. I wonder if – apart from changing a few old-fashioned words such as “beastly” – you could transplant this play to the modern day without having to make any changes.

The Vortex might not be the most polished play of Coward’s – the beginning is long and the ending is abrupt – but it is certainly one of his most different plays. Although Hay Fever is by far the more famous play, it is telling that Coward insisted he wanted The Vortex staging first. It is, sadly, also telling that most of the theatre world chooses to ignore this play, seemingly as this is not what we’re supposed to expect of him. It is refreshing that Stephen Unwin has looked beyond the stereotype, and, who knows, maybe he will be able to change the way we think of one of Britain’s most famous playwrights.

The Vortex continues at the Rose Theatre until 3rd March.