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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Vortex
BBC 1969 and YouTube   Spring 2022

Noel Coward's first play, uncharacteristically a social melodrama rather than witty comedy, made his name as playwright and actor in 1924.

It makes an unusual and daunting demand on its female star the actress first cast in the 1924 premiere chickened out two weeks before opening and a major attraction of this 1969 television production is the courage and emotional nakedness Margaret Leighton brings to the role.

Leighton plays a woman approaching fifty but desperately trying to hold on to her youthful image by acting gay (in the old sense) and abandoned, surrounding herself with a Young Set, and taking on a string of young lovers.

But the layers of make-up are getting thicker, her latest toyboy is the same age as her own son, and the effort is exhausting.

In the course of the play her lover will leave her, her most trusted friend will urge her to accept her age, and her son will turn on her and accuse her of abandoning him to his own demons in her selfishness.

The last time I reviewed this play, in 2008, I noted that star Felicity Kendal, although older than her character, looked too young to generate much sympathy.

In this 1969 version Margaret Leighton, about the same age as the character, bravely allows herself to be costumed and made up in unflattering ways and shot in extreme close-ups that call attention to every sag and wrinkle.

And the close-ups allow her to play every twitch of panic and exhaustion as the mask of gaiety becomes more difficult to keep up. The actress does not protect herself, but commits fully to exposing a woman losing a battle against time, and it is a deeply moving portrayal.

The co-star role (Coward's in the premiere) is the son, a man born too late for the Great War and with just a bit too much sensitivity to be satisfied with the empty hedonism of the Twenties.

Here, with Richard Warwick, a relatively lightweight actor, it struck me for the first time that he has something in common with Osborne's Jimmy Porter three decades later, though he lacks Jimmy's capacity for outrage and can only work himself up to some petulant whining.

The big scene of the play is the son confronting the mother with all his complaints about her immorality and neglect (an encounter that owes a lot in its structure and passion to Hamlet's Closet Scene), and this time your sympathies will all be with the mother.

Director Philip Dudley moves his cameras fluidly around a large and lovely set, always coming back to the telling close-ups of Margaret Leighton. Jennifer Daniel as the mother's sensible friend and Felicity Gibson as a cool-headed young woman provide solid support.

And Alan Melville, in the small role of a bitchy older man, does a wicked impersonation of the older Noel Coward, creating the haunting effect of the young Coward writing his older self into his play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Vortex - BBC 1969 - Spring 2022