Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Helen and Flo

Jayne Lunn as  Helen and Florence Alison Daly as Florence with that glories headboard and a nice touch of an art deco lamp behind. Pictures: Chris Commander

 The Vortex

Sutton Arts Theatre


SO we have Florence Lancaster, a socialite mother of, should we say, more mature years, a cougar I believe is the more polite modern parlance, who massages her aging ego with a steady succession of toy boys.

In their cossetted, privileged world her cuckolded husband David has long ago resigned himself to separate lives, their paths crossing only when necessary, while her wastrel son, Nicky, a pianist, has returned from a year doing little in Paris as a drug addict and with a fiancée, Bunty, in tow.

The only problem there being that his new love is an ex of mum’s latest toy boy, Tom, a man who treats old Flo with a love and affection bordering on complete indifference and who still obviously carries a torch for Bunty.

Nicky dislikes Tom being with his mother and is insanely jealous of Tom with Bunty, which doesn’t auger well, complicated even more by the fact it hardly needs a neon sign to advertise the fact Nicky is hardly a committed heterosexual.

This was the picture painted by Noel Coward in what was his first critically and financially successful play, assisted no doubt by its notoriety. It is hard to imagine a play concerning an unfaithful wife with a penchant for young lovers, a son with a cocaine habit, and undertones of homosexuality would risk being banned – it’s an average sort of episode for EastEnders after all. But in 1924 the 25-year-old Coward had to plead with theFlo and Tom Lord Chamberlain who reluctantly issued a licence.

Remember that at that time homosexuality was illegal and while there were those in the upper classes with questionable morals, the Establishment would rather have hidden it from view and not have it served up to titivate the lower orders among the theatre going public. Coward argued that it was a moral tract, warning of the danger of infidelity.

Love's sweet doom: Florence with latest toy boy Tom, played by Dan Holyhead

In reality it was a play chronicling the  excesses of the upper classes with, as Coward, who wrote, directed and played Nicky, put it, “a whacking great part in it for myself.”.

We open in the Lancaster’s London apartment with longstanding friend Helen, played with authentic poise and a lovely cut glass accent by Jayne Lunn, talking to another friend Pauncefort Quentin, and with a name like that Andy Tomlinson just had to be effeminate, and he did it beautifully with an over the top flamboyance worthy of the moniker.

Then there is yet another friend Clara, played with sense she is happiest when moaning by Valerie Tomlinson, Clara is a somewhat needy society soprano engaged to warble at parties and soirees.

Then there is Florence, played by Alison Daly, a woman desperately chasing a youth and beauty that deserted her long ago. Daly gives us a hedonistic woman, saying all the right things and meaning very few of them in her narrow, selfish life where anything disagreeable is always “tiresome”.

Tom, played by Dan Holyhead, is the latest lover boy, showing a certain degree of disdain for both Florence and her feckless son and an unhealthy interest in Bunty played by Kira Mack, who is adored by Florence and adores her in return – a mutual admiration which only lasts as long as it is useful of course.

And finally, there is Alan Lane’s David, the quietly spoken, broken spirited father with a marriage in name only. The main protagonists having appeared they are served by Preston the butler, played by Wanda Harris, who says more with a telling look than the script allowed her to express in words; it is a world of parties, theatres, clubs and pleasure with a weekend at Florence’s country estate to come.

The second act, the weekend country house party, in truth opens as a bit of a mess. With eight people dancing and music playing the dialogue is virtually unintelligible.

But, after the crowded, confused opening, which if nothing else, serves to show it is a party atmosphere, it settles down and we find a newcomer, Bruce Fairlight, a northern dramatist whose plays are full of squalor to contrast nicely with the party he is attending.

Fairlight is played by Alan Lane again, in a glorious suit to rival Joseph’s Technicolor dreamcoat, but his part in proceedings is never really brought out so he appears as just bit of an extra There is a touching scene, incidentally, with Lane as the broken David again, trying desperately as a father to reach out to his hurting son and being rejected.

Inevitably with relationships built on little more than a need for flattery or a whNickyim we start to see the cracks appear. It is a long way from the lovey dovey relationship Florence and her vanity wanted from Tom, while Nicky and Bunty’s pairing has all the security of a mouse in a cats’ home.

Helen, who has tried to tell Florence Tom doesn’t love her, now tries to straighten out Nicky. Good luck with that one, love. The fuse has been lit and the inevitable explosion brings the party to an abrupt end.

Chris Commander lives up to his name with a commanding performance as Nicky

The final act is the business end of the play, opening with Florence feeling sorry for herself on her bed, and as usual expecting everyone to feel sorry with her, being comforted and gently told a few home truths by Helen – until a drug addled Nicky arrives and she leaves them alone. Whatever has gone before pales against a brilliant dramatic scene between a nymphomaniac mother and her drug addict son. Daly takes her role by the scruff of the neck and comes into her own, pleading, defiant, defensive and unable to face growing old while Chris Commander, who had been impressive throughout as Nicky, puts in a quite stunning performance as the troubled son, and along with Daly, takes the play to another level.

Nicky perhaps sums Florence up best in his powerful monologue when he tells her she never loved her lovers, “you only loved them loving you!” and pleads with her to be his mother – “It's about time I had one before I go over the edge altogether.” Cracking stuff.

Commander was George in The Wedding Singer and baddy Crowfoot in Jack and the Beanstalk and this performance can only add to a growing reputation.

Stuart Goodwin’s set design is clever and up to Sutton’s high standards and it took some imagination given the stage limitations to create three sets with a classy 1920’s floor in the party scene and a fabulous art deco headboard and clever touches in the final scene.

As a play it perhaps does not  have the maturity nor the wit of Coward's later work, indeed it is a much grittier animal than we have become used to, full of anger and bitterness, but it did put him on the map and, almost a century on, with regular revivals, it has shown it has stood the test of time, helped no doubt by the fact infidelity and cocaine continue to make their mark in society.

These days homosexuality is neither an offence nor offensive and although the play might not have the titillation or notoriety it managed in 1924, it is still a telling piece about the nature of growing old, love, vanity and relationships. Directed by Stuart Goodwin The Vortex swirls around to 04-02-17

Roger Clarke


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