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Noel Coward’s classic Vortex is rediscovered as a play for today

PUBLISHED: 18:11 03 October 2018

Noel Coward's early play The Vortex has been revived by Paper Lantern Theatre Company and is being staged at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich. Photo: Darren Beattie

Noel Coward's early play The Vortex has been revived by Paper Lantern Theatre Company and is being staged at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich. Photo: Darren Beattie

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A rare early play by Noel Coward is being given a revival by a Suffolk theatre company who have discovered it has much to say to modern audiences. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director Sally Broatch

Noel Coward's early play The Vortex has been revived by Paper Lantern Theatre Company and is being staged at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich. Photo: Darren BeattieNoel Coward's early play The Vortex has been revived by Paper Lantern Theatre Company and is being staged at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich. Photo: Darren Beattie

When talking about Noel Coward you immediately think of classic plays like Private Lives and Hay Fever but Suffolk theatre company Paper Lantern is offering the opportunity to see a rarely seen work, The Vortex, which director Sally Broatch says will be like discovering a wonderful new work by Coward “because very few people will have seen it before”.

The Vortex tells the story of Florence Lancaster, a glamorous socialite, who has no intention of aging gracefully. Her son Nicky returns from Paris with both his fiancée Bunty and a serious drug addiction. As both mother and son begin to reveal their vulnerability what starts as a frothy comedy moves into darker territory.

Sally says that Paper Lantern chose to perform The Vortex because of its interesting history. “Noel Coward was just 24 years old when he wrote the play and it has a freshness that I think gives it an edge, but the contentious nature of the play made it hard to get it staged.

“The Vortex caused quite a sensation with audiences and critics alike who were stunned by scenes of homosexuality, drug abuse and infidelity, a depiction of sex and drugs in the Jazz Age. In some countries homosexuality had become quite acceptable for a period of time; the Panzy craze in America and the nightclubs of Berlin and Paris, the sad thing is that all changed when, in the late 1920’s, a moralistic crusade brought about a more general condemnation of homosexuality.

“I find it interesting that Coward has his hero, having spent many months in Paris, arrive back in London with a new female fiancee, almost as if he went looking for something but then realised that he had to return home.”

Sally observes that Coward, who was himself a homosexual caught in a moralistic society, wrote the character of Nicky for himself and seems to a have found an outlet for his emotions in The Vortex. “Within the text there are lines that shock and break your heart in equal measure and it is easy to see why the play was originally banned with references to cocaine being taken as a metaphor for Nicky’s homosexuality.”

Sally adds that there are other references in the play which have a direct connection to the modern world. “Nicky’s mother, Florence, battles with her own insecurity and strives to remain young and beautiful amongst the glamour and glitz of London’s high society, never seemingly noticing her family and their needs. In a society today where people will go under the knife to stay young, fear, judgement of the label of their clothes, all add together to measure their popularity by the likes they receive for a selfie post on Facebook. We soon realised that the themes and issues Coward addresses in this play are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago.”

Reading the play Sally says that although there is plenty of the characteristic Noel Coward wit on display, audiences will also see a different depth to this work.

“Some will say the play is far removed from his other plays such as Blithe Spirit and Hay Fever but having said that all of Noel Coward’s plays have an underlying darkness to them and in The Vortex we have a heart breaking climax may leave audiences questioning the values given to us by society.”

The Vortex, by Noel Coward, is staged by Paper Lantern Theatre Company, at Sir John Mills Theatre, Gatacre Road, Ipswich, October 11-20.

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