The Vortex | Factory Space Theatre CompanyDirector Roz Riley is back in the land of the living legend, with Factory Space's latest, from one of the greatest, Noel Coward. While Coward employs his trademark acerbity, this play, while not big on action, as such, is big on intensity and gut-wrenching drama. It was an early work of Coward's; one which put him under the spotlight as both writer and performer and which, in its day proved quite thoroughly scandalous; always an alluring imprimatur, in my book.

The cast has the sort of raggedly uneven hemline one comes to expect from independent theatre; 'though not necessarily exclusive to it. Lyndall Iron picks-up her game in the second act, but, from the start, the fabric & calibre of her performance, as Helen, best friend to key protagonist Florence, is seriously flawed, right down to the in-and-out, almost futile stab at Britishness. Her counterpart in the first scene, notwithstanding a too-ridiculous wig, David Kirkham, fares a whole lot better, as Pawnie, exhibiting the panache, presence, projection and diction the former so sadly lacked.

In short, while the first was distracting, the second was diverting.

Bianca Howard was appallingly unconvincing as Preston, the maid, let alone cross-dressed as eccentric playwright, Dr Fairlight. In the latter context, I harboured some sympathy, for she was clearly trying; regrettably, it came off as trying, in a whole other sense, notwithstanding some semblance of adept physicality.

What posessed Riley to succumb to this gender-bending gimmick, not once, but twice, is puzzling, since material of this quality, not mere width, hardly needs it.

The second instance was John Benjamin as Clara, which, frankly, wouldn't have cut the mustard in an off-colour night at Les Girls. Indeed, it was this performance (what's the opposite of self-assured?) which emphasised the already pronounced, anchor-dragging timing characteristic of the first act; thankfully, not at all evident, to my recollection, in the second.

So much for downsides, which, while we're on the subject, again included, set and a profusion of muzak, as well as music; the former put me in mind of over-scored, patronising Hollywood piffle, unrelenting in its desire to cue our emotions, or, worse still, the melodramatic stings & strings I associate with, say, Days Of Our Lives, or The Bold & The Beautiful. And why have some piano music live (and, on at least one occasion, drowning-out an important verbal exchange); some (badly) recorded? Finally, surely it's possible to capture a realistic, period phone-ring.

Of course, the reason for my apparent churlishness is I know how skilful Riley, on song, can be and has been, with other parts of this production. The evidence for the defence is considerable: the opening scene of act II, between the equally considerable Julian Kennard (as troubled, addicted muso and son of veritable Dorienne Grey, Florence) & his father (Kirkham, again) was as fine as I've seen, in any context, for a long while.

Kennard was consistently excellent; Isla Borrell, as his fleeting fiance, Bunty Mainwaring and, especially, Cat Martin, as his character (Nicholas') mother, were tending towards and perilously close to his rivals, for command of the stage and play. Mitchell McDermott, too, as opportunistic young lover, Tom Veryan, was more than creditable.

All-in-all, it was an involving pleasure, not only to watch the players 'swirl 'round in a vortex of beastliness', but feel very much a part of the dizzying decay and sudden, surprising redemption.

All the more surprising, if you should mainly think of Coward as a purveyor of the pointedly wicked, witty ditty, rather than an heroic dramatist who, even in his day, subject to the weight of convention, dared to be different, to the point of almost crossing-over into the dangerous world of the avant-garde.

Factory Space Theatre Company
The Vortex
By Noel Coward

Venue: Star of the Sea Theatre, Manly
Dates: September 20 - October 11, 2008 
Times: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays @ 7.30
Matinee: Sunday 28th September 3pm matinee
Tickets: $30 / $25
Bookings: 9439 1906 

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