Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Hay Fever

Noël Coward
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
(2008)

Production photo

Royal Exchange artistic director Greg Hersov has revived Noël Coward's theatrical comedy starring Royal Exchange regular Ben Keaton and well-known TV actors Belinda Lang and Lysette Anthony for the Manchester theatre's summer production.

Without telling the others, retired actress Judith Bliss, her husband David and her son and daughter Simon and Sorel have all invited guests to the country house where they all live for the weekend, apparently all with romantic intentions, which all makes Clara, Judith's former dresser and now her grumpy maid, even grumpier. After some theatrical sulks from all of the family, the guests arrive, but after they have been made to join in with some party games, there is some partner swapping and some embarrassing scenes of apparent misunderstanding, which aren't all what they seem.

The plot is fairly slight, as the play is really a series of comic set pieces taking place between the announcements that the guests have been invited to their departure the next morning. The Bliss family insists on its guests joining in with its various games whatever embarrassment it causes them, from the adverbs acting game to the more subtle acting games of feigning passionate love for their guests and implying that a long-term commitment has been made. This is all performed superbly and with relish, both the theatrical passion of the Blisses and the embarrassment and bewilderment of the guests, and at times is hilarious, but such shrill overacting, even (or perhaps especially) when done deliberately for comic effect, can become rather wearing after a while.

Belinda Lang is wonderful as Judith, giving a perfectly measured performance of this self-consciously outgoing character. Lysette Anthony as the vampish Myra Arundel is equally superb in a part made for her. Ben Keaton, apart from one or two nice little physical flourishes, is rather subdued in his relatively small part as David Bliss. Despite some opening dialogue that sounds a little too rehearsed, Chris New and Fiona Button as Simon and Sorel Bliss gradually become the spoilt, childish, selfish offspring of like-minded parents and relish in the arguments and faked emotional scenes.

Simon Bubb brings out the polite embarrassment of strait-laced Sandy Tyrell very well, and Dorothea Myer-Bennett does a similar thing just as well with her portrayal of Jackie Coryton. The cast is completed by Simon Treves as the lovably polite Richard Greatham and Tessa Bell-Briggs as the bad-tempered maid Clara.

While there are undoubtedly some very funny moments in this play and it is extremely well-performed by all the actors, it still feels like an over-extended comedy sketch, dragged out just a little more by the insertion of two intervals into a two-hour play.

Reviewer: David Chadderton