Noël Coward's Hay Fever Revels In Bohemian Excess

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 36 months ago
Noël Coward's Hay Fever Revels In Bohemian Excess ★★★☆☆ 3

Felicity Kendal
Felicity Kendal in Hay Fever. Photo by Simon Annand.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

Noël Coward’s 1925 light comedy Hay Fever is a star vehicle if ever there was one. In this revival first seen at Theatre Royal Bath last year, the spotlight is on Felicity Kendal — much beloved for The Good Life and other TV sitcoms but a leading theatre performer for 40 years — revelling in the role of Judith Bliss, a retired stage actress on the verge of a comeback. At one point she says, "I don’t want to make a scene," but as an incorrigible drama queen that is of course exactly what she does most of the time in this mild satire on bohemian mores.

In fact, the whole Bliss family love to ‘play up’. Judith’s novelist husband, artist son and flapper daughter are equally self-obsessed, insincere and rude, with all of them competing for attention. So when each of them invites someone to stay at their country house in Berkshire for a romantic weekend without telling the others, a histrionic conflict of interests inevitably ensues. Over-the-top rows and petty sulking rule the household as intimate trysts are interrupted and partners are swapped, but with the Blisses all putting on such a bad performance as hosts how much can their uncomfortable guests take?

Hay Fever’s humour is not based on a complicated storyline or witty dialogue so much as a clash of cultures that contrasts the conventional attitudes of the polite guests with the eccentric narcissism of their outrageous hosts — and though the Bliss family would probably be intolerable in real life, on stage Coward seems to be implying that they are a lot more fun than their dull, slow-witted victims. The centrepiece is a competitive parlour game in which the extrovert Blisses run rings around their inhibited, humiliated visitors. Later on in another context a bemused guest asks ‘Is this a game?’ not recognising that most of the weekend is play-acting, but only the hosts know the rules as they make them up as they go along.

After getting off to a bit of a slow start, Lindsay Posner’s production gathers comic momentum later, even if it doesn’t really persuade us that these superficial characters are as diverting as intended. Peter McKintosh’s part-timbered, airy design, full of pictures and books as well as a steep staircase for dramatic entrances, sets the scene well.

Kendal leads the cast with husky-voiced feigned emotion, particularly funny when latching on passionately to a reserved diplomat (Michael Simkins) who pecks her on the neck, and ‘giving away’ first her daughter (Alice Orr-Ewing) to her own toy boy, and then her husband (Simon Shepherd) to a flirtatious friend (Sara Stewart) she loathes. This prima donna belongs to a dysfunctional family who seem blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings.

Hay Fever is on at Duke of York's Theatre, St Martin's Lane, WC2N until 1 August. Tickets £22.90–£88.90. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

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Last Updated 12 May 2015