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.

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