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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Apollo

By Matt Wolf

  Felicity Kendal

Noel Coward's 1924 play is rarely performed in the States but it has become something of a London quasi-regular and is now marking its third local production in nearly 20 years - a mounting from Peter Hall that, in qualitative terms, lies midway between Philip Prowse's scorching staging in 1989, with Rupert Everett in a performance he to this day has never bettered, and Michael Grandage's uncharacteristically duff rendering for the Donmar earlier this decade - the show, in fact, with which he launched his artistic directorship, even if its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, seemed far happier working with Grandage most recently on Othello. In my view, one can't really encounter this play often enough, both for what it says about a writer exposing himself, as it were, at the start of his career in a way that he really wouldn't - at least to this degree - later on. And even if Felicity Kendal remains too straitjacketed by vocal and physical mannerisms to give the female lead its full due, she and her blazing co-star, Dan Stevens, do well by the play's decisive third act: a rewrite of the closet scene from Hamlet that follows a scenario in which Coward, in other ways, seems to be rewriting Ibsen's Ghosts.

The structure of the play exerts its own fascinations, Coward narrowing his focus so that all the supporting characters are gradually written out of the narrative until we are left alone with a cocaine-addicted son, Nicky (Stevens), and his vainglorious, nymphomanical mother, Florence (Kendal). That leaves ample room in the first act for us to get a sense of the bitchery and high theatricality of the milieu in which these people move, whether one is talking Barry Stanton's slyly queenie Pawnie (the character's real name, if you please, is Pauncefort) or Annette Badland cast floridly against type as Clara, an over-the-top singer with an apparent penchant for feeling under the weather. As they gather in Florence's Mayfair drawing room (a somewhat under-designed one courtesy Allison Chitty , who encases the action in ominously high black walls), the family dynamic is quickly sketched in: Nicky, the son, has been away in Paris for a year, leaving his wildly emotive, fretful mother to take a lover (Daniel Pirrie's rather stolid Tom) the same age as her son while dad - and Paul Ridley does wonders with a tiny role - looks on from the sidelines to which he's evidently been banished.

The play makes reference to a vortex of beastliness but the title also describes the possibly Oedipal maelstrom toward which the three acts build. While Florence is described as potentially incapable of a genuine emotion by her truth-teller friend, Helen (Phoebe Nicholls quite sensibly plays this role as if it were Coward's version of Paulina, from The Winter's Tale), Nicky, in Stevens's astute take on him, seems oddly emotionless, at least at the start. Aware that he doesn't have the knack for happiness, this Nicky comes off as a man vaguely possessed by the scarily articulate self-reckoning that he has grown up all wrong. The result makes it doubly shocking when he seems to tear himself open in that climactic bedroom encounter, his mother, in one crucial way at least, revealed to be every bit the equal of her son: I'm so unhappy, so desperately unhappy," Florence lets rip, and Kendal, sweeping her hair back, convincingly loses her flamboyant cool if never that defining vocal gurgle that has the effect of rendering cutesy lines and situations that really aren't at all. (Kendal was at her best working with Hall several yea


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