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Review of The Vortex - John Knowles

The Vortex at The Royal Exchange in Manchester did not disappoint. Set on a dazzling ‘in the round’ set of black and white spirals with pneumatically managed circular stages that rose and fell for each major change of scene, a convincing cast performed to the hilt to a full matinee audience in this unique theatre setting. For those who have never been to the Royal Exchange it is an undoubted treat. Set as a freestanding performance space, that echoes the design of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, it lies like a tardis in the middle of the colonnades of the old Corn Exchange in the heart of Manchester’s shopping district. The building is a beautiful blend of old and new and provided an ideal setting for this most provocative of Coward dramas.

In the last edition of Home Chat I tried to set into context the harsher comments from critics about this first venture into professional theatre for Will Young. Well harsh I think they were! His first appearance in Act one as Nicky Lancaster is more prodigal ‘mummy’s boy’ than ‘camp’- the accusation of the more savage reviews. He is a sight! By that I mean he enters larger than life in enormous Oxford bags, sleeveless Fair Isle and braces like an overblown prodigal Sebastian Flyte exhilarated to be home after a year away. From that point on he convinces, as do the entire cast.

The direction of the action, the design and lighting made the most of the circular staging and allowed a comfortable intimacy with the players. From the first entry of the sardonic butler, Preston, to the histrionics of the final act the actors held us all. David Fielder as ‘Pauncie’ is a convincing ‘devil on the shoulder’ of Florence mincingly tempting her to even greater foolishness with young men whilst the voice of her conscience, Helen, played with thorough sensibility by Alexander Mathie does her utmost to get her to see sense in the madness of the world she has created. Helen by her dress and demeanour should reflect the sensible nature of her being with just a touch of the sneaking admiration that underpins her friendship with Florence so it was hard to see why in Act one this needed to be exaggerated to the extent of looking like a warder in Cell Block H – but this is nitpicking!

As the play progresses the tensions rise and the music, dancing and snatches of song hint at the emotional maelstrom that is to come. The monochrome set reinforces the starkness of the choices that have been made and the love that has been lost as Nicky and Florence move towards the final exposure of their weaknesses and the price they have paid.

The mix of restraint, timing and emotional release in the final chapter are critical and it is hard to see how Diana Hardcastle and Will Young could have bettered this exacting passage. The audience was genuinely moved as their weaknesses unravelled, realisation struck and they finally clung to each other longing for the love and security they both so desperately seek. This was a triumphant final Act and an overall performance that would have a done many a West End theatre proud!

For Will Young it has clearly been an intense, demanding but ultimately rewarding experience that bodes well for future theatre opportunities. Ironically his weakest moments were when he played the piano and thinly accompanied Rhiannon Oliver in her role as the singer Clara Hibbert. That aside he was convincing and at times compelling as the flawed hero well matched to the masterly skills of the experienced actress Diana Hardcastle. This was a memorable performance of a play that still has so much to say about society and the frailty of the human condition.

Will Young Opens in The Vortex - written prior to seeing the play

After his undoubted success in the role of Bertie in Mrs. Henderson Presents... it is not surprising that Will Young, known initially in the UK for his success in the February 2002 Pop Idol TV series, wants to be taken seriously as an actor. His educational background at the University of Exeter where he read Politics and as a student at The Arts Educational Schools in Chiswick, London, indicate that he is an intelligent performer who is prepared to work his way up in his new chosen career well away from the tinsel of pop fame. Choosing to take on the ground-breaking drama that made Noël Coward an ‘overnight’ success is a brave move.

We know from his own lips that Coward wrote his dramas as ‘fields of play’ for himself and applied intense professional zeal to achieve his personal and professional goal of ‘travelling through life first-class’. His theatrical nous, hard won through a childhood of precocious encounters with the major theatrical players of the day including his mentor the comic actor Charles Hawtrey, meant that he had a far larger armoury of skills to tackle the role of Nicky Lancaster in The Vortex than Will Young can expect to have or employ.

This depth of early experience meant that although he was always highly self-critical of the structure of his early and largely unsuccessful plays, Coward developed an ability to write a good part and, as importantly, how to play it! Nicky Lancaster is not an easy part. Trying to convince an audience that in the early part of a drama one is heterosexual enough to marry a woman and later gay enough not to want to, is a good trick if you can pull it off. It indicates at the very least that one needs to take a dramatic journey during the course of the play that justifies this apparent change of awareness of one’s sexual personality!

Many NCS members saw the Donmar production of The Vortex with its contraversial ‘colour-blind’ casting of a black actor as the son of a middle-aged white couple. Some found that the production failed to build and ignite the passions needed to make the final scene the explosive denouement first seen when Coward and Lilian Braithwaite shocked the first-night audience at the Everyman Theatre in November 1924.

As in the Donmar production Will Young and the cast of this revival have the task of making the play pertinent to modern audiences. Will has the added task of convincing audiences, that he is more than a ‘pop idol’. At this stage in his career it is hard to see how he can win. Such a serious change of role places him on the sacrificial altar of the media. It is a pity that so many of the early reviews dwell on what they describe as his ‘camp’ playing of the main character whilst the other, mainly female, roles are unquestioningly praised. The design and overall direction of the play wins applause. So the debate seems to centre around the decision to play Nicky in the way he has. Was it a directorial decision or Will’s own or - as some are saying - a sign that there is simply not the depth of ability from this pop star to play such a difficult role? |

Who knows? Someone who has shown so much ability as a singer/songwriter and who has as an actor played a role in a major movie in a sensitive and effective way should at least be allowed to develop his skills during the run of this regional production without too much finger-pointing. If the overall reaction is correct then this revival has considerable strength and is certainly well worth seeing.

Will has shown considerable courage in appearing on a small stage not an arm’s length from young fans who would never have dreamed of getting so near to their idol. They might normally expect to view him through binoculars performing at the far end of Wembley Arena!

The Independent newspaper gives the following positive assessment:
In many ways Young is perfect in the part of Nicky Lancaster, the spoilt, heroin-shooting boy, emotionally adrift from his resigned father and flighty mother, and weary of the nebulous life he's drowning in. Diana Hardcastle gives a compelling performance as his calculating, socialite mother, Florence - her selfish vanity and weakness for extra marital affairs with younger men blinding her to her son's vulnerability. Their final, wretched encounter, as they teeter on the brink of descending into a vortex of beastliness is searing in its intensity. As they tear at each other's failures, you feel mother and son deserve each other.

Cast: Will Young, Diana Hardcastle, Laura Rees, Alexander Mathie, David Fielder, Drew Carter-Cain, Sam Heughan, Rhiannon Oliver, David Peart
Director: Jo Combes Designer: Lez Brotherston

The Vortex is showing at The Royal Exchange, Manchester until March 10th 2007. Tickets are available on 0161 615 6815 or 0161 833 9833.