Hay Fever

Noël Coward
A Chichester Festival Theatre production in association with Duncan C. Weldon
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

The first thing to admire about this gloriously fun-filled romp is Robert Jones’s beautiful set depicting the elegant, spacious hall of an English country house with the gardens just visible through an expanse of French windows, although surprisingly and strangely these do double duty as the front door. Making full use of the large thrust stage, a graceful, sweeping staircase curves its way to the first and second floors.

There is time to appreciate the scene before it blacks out completely, suddenly lighting up again to reveal the two younger members of the family sprawled over sofa and cushions, and something else to admire is the speed with which they managed to position themselves in the dark.

Basing the play on his weekend visit to a family in Manhattan (who reputedly were very angry with him, and no wonder), Coward has changed the venue to England and the style of drawing room comedy most familiar to him, but the family here have the same characteristics of self-absorption, volatile tempers, exaggerated theatrically and total disregard for the sensibilities of their guests which he experienced.

They over-act outrageously, play games that their bewildered visitors cannot understand, yet are amazed and annoyed when the guests slip away without saying goodbye. The Bliss family are blissfully unaware that it is their own extraordinary behaviour which has caused the exodus. Written in just three days, Coward seems to be pouring out all his annoyance in revenge at the off-hand treatment he received, but with his usual wit and humour he turns this plotless play into a comedy, as highly entertaining today as in the twenties when it was written.

Siblings Sorel (Laura Rogers) and Simon (Sam Alexander) begin as they mean to go on - with an argument. Each has invited a guest for the weekend expecting the Japanese Room to be available, but parents Judith and David have also issued separate invitations both with the same room in mind. Ironically the one who finally gains the coveted room is David's guest, the shy, awkward, young Jackie (a delightfully gauche Natalie Walter) and she spends a miserable night with the dragons around the walls giving her nightmares.

Judith's guest is Sandy Tyrell, sporty, athletic but slightly dim – Edward Bennett playing a vastly different role from his recent highly acclaimed Hamlet which he famously understudied and played at the RSC. Caroline Langrishe confidently stalks the stage as Myra who “uses sex like a shrimping net” and the guest list is completed by a charismatic Guy Henry as Richard.

Director Nickolai Foster keeps the pace flowing briskly along, and, despite the flamboyant theatricality and the fact that the farcical elements are sometimes over-emphasised, the direction and performances are so perfectly in tune that the characters seem completely believable – believe it or not! Diana Rigg holds sway as the ageing actress who cannot resist a performance, and Simon Williams’ David is in a world of his own, too involved with his writing to notice much around.

Foster says he is constantly looking for the psychological journey that characters take during a play, but no one here seem to have travelled very far. If the journey was present it passed me by.

Cleverly constructed and brilliantly written, exceptionally well cast and expertly performed, despite its lack of any real plot this is a high quality production to enjoy, with much of the humour derived from the bewilderment, verging on panic, from the young guests. Another West End transfer imminent? I would not be surprised.

Until Saturday 2nd May

Reviewer: Sheila Connor