The Vortex

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For other uses, see Vortex (disambiguation).
Noël Coward with Lilian Braithwaite, his co-star in The Vortex

The Vortex is a play by the English writer and actor Noël Coward. The story focuses on sexual vanity and drug abuse among the upper classes. The play was Coward's first great commercial success.

After London productions in 1924–25, the play received a New York production in 1924–26. It has enjoyed several recent revivals.

Background and productions[edit]

The story is about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine-addicted son (played by Coward). Some saw the drugs as a mask for homosexuality,[1] while Kenneth Tynan later described it as "a jeremiad against narcotics with dialogue that sounds today not so much stilted as high-heeled".[2]

Kate Cutler (c. 1900)

It was first performed in 1924 at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead in north London. Leading London managements had wished to stage the play, but had not wanted Coward to play the juvenile lead, Nicky. As one of Coward's principal objects in writing the play had been to give himself "a first-rate opportunity for dramatic acting" he produced the play himself on borrowed money, and cast himself as Nicky.[3] Upset by a last-minute rewrite that she believed diminished her role,[4] the female star, Kate Cutler, dropped out a week before the premiere, but Coward was able to engage the veteran actress Lilian Braithwaite, who learned the part at very short notice.[5] The original production was well received for its passionate acting and became a sensation because of its scandalous subject matter.[5] The production moved to the West End at the Royalty Theatre on 16 December 1924, then transferred to the Comedy Theatre in February 1925 and finally to The Little Theatre, closing on 16 June 1925.[6] On the few occasions when Coward was unable to play the part, his role was taken by his understudy, John Gielgud.[7] The sets and costumes were designed by Coward's friend Gladys Calthrop.[8][9]

As Coward noted in his memoir Present Indicative, "The Press notices... were, on the whole, enthusiastic." The Daily Mirror called it "an interesting and, in some respects, a remarkable comedy".[10] The Manchester Guardian had some reservations, but described the play as "genuinely and deeply interesting".[11] The Observer also had reservations but thought parts of the play "the best thing Mr. Coward has yet done in playwriting."[12] The Times opined: "It is a study that has wit, observation, and a sincerity, leaping out between flippances, which is its peculiar merit."[13]

The play, produced by Joseph P. Bickerton, Jr., opened on Broadway at the Henry Miller's Theatre on 16 September 1925 and closed in January 1926 after 157 performances. Braithwaite and Coward reprised their roles, with Coward and Basil Dean directing. It was revived in 1974 at the Greenwich Theatre, London, with Vivien Merchant and Timothy Dalton;[14] in New York City off-Broadway at the Diane Von Furstenburg Studio, The Theater, in 2001; and at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002. In 2008 the play was performed at London's Apollo Theatre, starring Felicity Kendal as Florence and Dan Stevens as Nicky, both of whom were highly praised for their performances.[15]

Ivor Novello appeared in a 1928 film version.[16] In 1975, Glyn Dearman produced a BBC Radio version with Martin Jarvis as Nicky, Elizabeth Sellars as Florence and Timothy Dalton as Tom.[17] This was subsequently rebroadcast several times in the UK.[18]


The story follows a talented young composer, Nicky Lancaster. Nicky proposes to his lover Bunty, a journalist, while his mother Florence, an ageing socialite, has extramarital affairs with younger men, including Tom, who is also Bunty's ex-fiancé. Tensions come to a boil as Nicky struggles with his severe cocaine addiction and repressed homosexuality (a theme that was necessarily subtly conveyed, considering contemporary attitudes), as well as the simmering resentment he feels for his vainglorious mother.[19]


  1. ^ Hoare, p. 129
  2. ^ Tynan, pp. 286–88
  3. ^ Castle, p. 60 and Coward, pp. 167 and 174
  4. ^ "The blood and guts of Coward", Camden New Journal, accessed 1 June 2009
  5. ^ a b Kenrick, John. "Noel Coward: Biographical Sketch – Part II", Musicals 101: The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film
  6. ^ Hoare, pp. 138, 146, 149
  7. ^ Coward, p. 192
  8. ^ Hoare, p. 131
  9. ^ "Mrs Gladys Calthrop – Artist and stage designer", The Times, 11 March 1980, p. 14
  10. ^ The Daily Mirror, 17 December 1924, p. 2
  11. ^ The Manchester Guardian, 26 November 1924, p. 12
  12. ^ The Observer, 30 November 1924, p. 11
  13. ^ The Times, 26 November 1924, p. 8
  14. ^ "The Vortex (1975–1976)", Timothy Dalton – Shakespearean James Bond, accessed 28 June 2012
  15. ^ Review of The Vortex, The Telegraph, 2008
  16. ^ The Vortex (1928) at the IMDB, accessed 8 March 2011
  17. ^ "The Vortex by Noel Coward", Radio Drama Reviews Online, BBC Radio 7, 17 August 2008, accessed 2 October 2011
  18. ^ "Noel Coward – The Vortex", BBC, accessed February 11, 2015
  19. ^ Synopsis of the film version at


External links[edit]