We all know people like the Bliss family in Hay Fever. Friends who are basically rude, but fun, and we let them get away with it. They genially invite you round for a drink, are horrified when you actually arrive, and then point out they have no milk for your tea, nor tonic for your gin.
Noël Coward's Hay Fever is a study of a family of such characters. Bohemian; joyfully unworried about what other people think; manipulative; unconstrained by social norms. "Abnormal, that's what we are!" cries the daughter, Sorel Bliss early on in the play. She's determined to do something about it… for about five minutes, before the next distraction comes along.
The behaviour of this nutty foursome is thrown into high relief when each of the family members invites a guest to stay for the weekend. A diplomat, an ingenue, a hunk and a vamp all duly arrive, bourgeois flies ready to be woven into the Bliss family's funny but formidable web.
The play, of course, is a well-worn classic. And this is a classy production to match. Bunny Christie's beautiful set provides the perfect backdrop for a consummate cast. Lindsay Duncan's matriarch, Judith Bliss, strides around the stage, all wild hair and flowing silks; part Ab Fab's Eddy, part Norma Desmond. Her range of on-stage shoe changes, from wellingtons to jewelled heels is brilliant. Phoebe Waller-Bridge wins equal laughs as the horribly horsey daughter, where a lack of manners also means elegance and dignity are wanting. And in contrast, Jeremy Northam produces a fantastically nuanced performance as the uptight Richard, lengthy silences conveying his utmost horror that he hasn't been welcomed into the home, properly introduced to the other guests, or offered a cup of tea.
All-in-all, this Hay Fever is a perfectly polished production of a very good play. It's laugh-out-loud funny, light, ephemeral entertainment. But if we were being truly critical and asking "Why this? Why now?", we couldn't tell you. As a piece of pure fun for people willing to shell out between £30 and £50 for a night at the theatre, it's perfect. If you have American cousins hoping to see a "claassic Briddish schow" by all means, take them. If you're a Coward aficionado, or a big fan of one of the cast, see it. But we really couldn't find anything vital in it: at those prices, with quality revivals so frequent, with such a wide variety of other theatre on offer in London at the mo, we're reluctant to call this Hay Fever a "must-see".
Hay Fever plays until 2 June at the Noël Coward Theatre, 85 St Martin's Lane, Covent Garden, London, WC2. Tickets cost between £16 and £53.50. Visit www.hayfeverlondon.com to find out more.