THE VORTEX by Noel Coward
Review by Catherine Siggins
Malibu Playhouse, 04/10/2014

What do Keith Richards & Noel Coward have in common? No, it’s not the allusion to drugs, or that they’re both singer/ songwriters. For director Gene Franklin Smith, Keith’s observations, in his autobiography Life, of the changing societal landscape in Britain in the mid-60’s, mirrored Coward’s England of the 1920’s, when the lines separating the classes were swept away post-war by youth & popular culture. 
(Actor Craig Robert Young portrays Nicky Lancaster, the role originated by Coward himself.)

Smith has edited the text, removing Preston, Clara Hibbert & Bruce Fairlight, focusing more directly on the main protagonists. The play opens in keeping with this rebellious nature, with the cast looking as though they are on the cover of a Bert Kaempfert album, dancing. Greg Chun’s sound design perfectly evokes the new wildness of this time. 

(Cast L-R Victoria Hoffman, Daniel Jimenez, Shannon Holt, Craig Robert Young, Cameron Mitchell, Jr. and Skye LaFontaine. Missing Will Carney)

 In a kitsch London apartment, groovily designed by Erin Walley, newly engaged Nicky Lancaster, after a debauched year in Paris, has returned to England to gain approval for his future bride from his celebrated mother, a faded stage actress & learns she is being squired by a man his own age, who is too well acquainted with his fiancée for comfort. During the ensuing weekend party, at the Lancaster’s stylish Danish Modern country home, both Nicky & Florence are dumped, creating a crisis that exposes Nicky’s addiction inspired by the neglect & abusive nature of their family history.
With the battle cry, “it’s never to early for a cocktail”, Shannon Holt gives a stunning performance, playing Florence with relish. As dazzling as the costume she wears, with a kaleidoscope of colors & tones she creates a multi-facetted woman. We also see the flaws at the heart of this jewel, the isolation, desperate need for validation & denial. 
(Victoria Hoffman as Helen shares more than a knowing look over a cocktail with Cameron Mitchell, Jr.'s, Pawnie.)

Victoria Hoffman is exceptional as a witty, genuine, insightful Helen, as she tries but ultimately knows she can only fail to help her much-loved friends. Skye LaFontaine, delightful as uncomplicated It-girl, Bunty Mainwaring, with  Daniel Jimenez, recalling a young Prince Philip, as strappingly regimental Tom Veryan, are perfect foils to Nicky & Florence. Will Carney gives a touching performance as Nicky’s defeated & withdrawn father, David Lancaster. And it is left to Cameron Mitchell Jr., as Pawnie, to supply the requisite flamboyance & facetiousness of Coward’s funniest characters, which he does with élan. Pawnie’s struggle over the chocolates was sublime. 
(Craig Robert Young's in one of Nicky's lighter moments with his 'girl' Bunty
played by Skye LaFontaine)

 As Nicky Lancaster, Craig Robert Young gives a bravura performance. He shifts beautifully between the funny, expressive, an outwardly confident young man to the little boy, who needs care. Utterly believable & heartbreaking, he shows Nicky’s struggle, disappointment, hope, yearning. With a real sense of desperation & impending violence, he had me on the edge of my seat. 

 (Young and Holt break it down in an emotional III act.)

The whole cast are superb & have succeeded in making these roles very much their own. If the applause at the end came rather late, as the cast returned to the stage, it was because we were all recovering our composure. 

The cast is helped by fabulous costumes, hair & make-up by Brian Primeaux, Christina Culinski & Dale Johnson.

When I lived in London, I made the pilgrimage to Stratford to see great theatre. I can assure you a trip to Malibu Playhouse, though minus the swans, is easier, way warmer, has ocean views, shrimp shacks en route & is just as enriching for your artistic soul. 

This production stays with you long after you leave the theatre. In fact, it’s hard to describe this production without sounding like one of Coward’s characters, speaking superlatives. 

Tickets are available by visiting www.plays411.com
Check around for discounted tickets.


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