The Vortex, Loft Theatre, Leamington, until November 4.
This production is startling in its unpredictability on two counts.
Noel Coward enthusiasts expecting his traditional comedy of manners may well be perplexed. And a distinctly unpromising tone to the first act steadily evaporates in time for a third act which is positively stunning in its power and delivery.
This dichotomy is puzzling, to say the least. Weak and uneven performances in the first half-hour could be attributed to Coward’s almost surreal balance between humour and pending drama.
The scene might settle as the run continues but that certainly doesn’t apply to act three when the ultimate confrontation between mother and son already explodes across the stage with extraordinary vigour.
It is here we get two of the finest local theatre performances of the year, from Sean Glock as the wayward Nicky and Julie Godfrey as the unstable Florence.
Under the tightly observant direction of Michael Rolfe, both rally magnificently to the soul-searching demands of two people facing the demons of their decadent existences.
What is immediately striking is the sense of total commitment by both players and the director in examining the build-up to self-destruction by Nicky with his drugs dependence and dormant homosexuality and Florence through her artificial attempts to romance younger men and retain her fading charms.
Such revelations may have shocked 1920s society but their hypocrisy ensured massive success for the play and for the young Coward’s career.
The period is splendidly captured in Richard Moore’s set designs, notably the streamlined
and geometric art deco shapes of the first act. These go some way towards offsetting the early mediocrity.
As the performance is set alight, the only problem is the television-style pauses in dialogue delivery. Where these may work on screen, they produce a negative effect in theatre where more immediate projection is needed.
Of the supporting characters, there is well-defined work by Tracey James as Florence’s sounding-board friend and a master-class in subtle underplaying from Martin Cosgrif as the disenchanted husband showing quiet concern for his disturbed son.
It’s a welcome opportunity to see this rarely-performed play, and it’s interesting to wonder why Coward’s theatrical eloquence was later mainly confined to engaging trivia.