Hay Fever is an early Noel Coward, first staged in 1924 and he himself noted in a revival production that the reviews had not been effusive and had complained about the lack of plot.
The play is a comedy of manners about a family who is bad mannered: it satirises the shallow, theatricality of the upper classes but goes no further.
Felicity Kendal will be well known to audiences from her television work, but she is also an accomplished stage performer: the impressive cast has extensive experience on stage and screen. Kendal plays Judith Bliss, a recently retired actress who has been attempting to play the role of the landed gentry in a country villa while husband, David (Simon Shepherd), works on his latest novel.
To relieve the boredom and tedium of country life compared with the excitement of city theatre, Judith has invited Sandy (James Corrigan) a younger man, to stay for the weekend: her son, Simon (Edward Franklin) has invited his slightly older lady friend, Myra (Sara Stewart) to stay and daughter, Sorel (Alice Orr-Ewing) has invited Richard Greatham (Michael Simkins) a slightly older man, to stay.
The Bliss family is terribly English and they are awfully pleased to have interesting characters stay and some times they are simply awful, especially to each other about the guests that have been invited.
Noel Coward’s Hay Fever may have been witty and clever in the 1920s but spending a couple of hours in the company of upper class twits, even if they are supposedly Bohemian in behaviour, is of some interest but not highly stimulating.
Act One is the classic setting up of balmy characters and a situation ripe for mis-matches and calamity.
Act Two begins with everyone in dinner suits and gorgeous ’20s evening wear, playing beastly parlour games similar to charades. Inevitably there are arguments, couples storm out and individuals pair off and fall in love with complete strangers.
Kendal exploits the theatricality of the situation after receiving a harmless peck on the neck, insisting that she must declare her new love to her husband, who takes the news jolly well: they decide to part on good terms and, honourably, shake hands. It is very English and quite good fun, old chap.
Act Three has the house guests believing themselves to be in a madhouse as the Bliss family continue to bicker, oblivious of the confusion and consternation around them.
Peter McKintosh’s set is impressive without being ostentatious and sets the scene for a well to do family living in a grand country estate. It successfully conveys gloomy English wintry days complete with rain.
Kendal and the cast comfortably portray slightly eccentric, demonstrative characters: Simon Shepherd is the ramrod straight, smooth and classy Englishman; Michael Simkins is highly skilled as Richard Greatham, the somewhat bumbling, awkward, ordinary fellow and the others have their moments.
Celeste Dodwell is exceptionally good as Jackie Coryton, proving the old adage that there are no small roles as she makes the most of every moment she is on stage and, with minimal dialogue, she creates very entertaining comic business: she had the audience laughing as she entered and she found physical comedy throughout the play.
English theatre is steeped in a long tradition of comedy and Noel Coward’s comedies of manners have been a significant part of that comic development but Hay Fever is quite restrictive and restraining in its depiction of its characters and doesn’t encourage innovative staging.
Lindsay Posner’s production of Hay Fever has the Bliss family played as relatively normal people and more obnoxious than eccentric.
Occasionally hysterical and histrionic they are never endearing: it is difficult to like or loathe them and if they carry on in a self destructing manner, are we bothered?
Hay Fever is showing at Her Majesty’s Theatre until December 7.
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