Noel Coward Theatre
For the first time since its re-christening, the Noël Coward Theatre welcomes a play by the theatrical icon after whom it is now named.
Hay Fever is one of the master's most popular and enduring plays, inevitably extremely funny and offering an unmissable opportunity to the experienced actress blessed with the chance to play Judith Bliss, on this occasion Lindsay Duncan, perhaps not an obvious choice.
Howard Davies's revival works hard to say something original about a play that will be familiar to almost all viewers. For some reason, he and designer Bunny Christie have decided to introduce an off-the-wall concept whereby the drama takes place in the kind of dusty artist's studio more commonly seen in Coward's later play, Design for Living, which actually has a setting that requires it.
The justification here is the fact that in the opening scene, the son of the house, Freddie Fox as Simon, is painting a mildly risqué, sub-Matisse with the assistance of his sister Sorrel, of whom more later.
While this location works perfectly for a few minutes, the set then becomes both inappropriate and unwieldy, as the studio is desperately under-furnished once the house party reaches eight, plus the perpetually grumpy, dresser-turned housekeeper Clara, Jenny Galloway.
The Blisses really are the most extraordinary family with vanity running in the blood just as much as artistic creativity. On this occasion, the members of this quartet are also asked to play up every extremity of their already eccentric behaviour.
Judith is a constantly-retiring, theatrical Grande Dame, well played by a most amusing Miss Duncan as a woman who never gives way to her own feelings when those of former characters can be utilised instead.
Kevin R McNally is her novelist-husband David, showing a greater streak of harshness than one would usually expect. Fox makes Simon rather effete and the evening is graced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to the manner born as Sorrel, a frustrated 19-year-old desperately seeking excitement and considerably wiser than either of her parents.
Watching the family playing psychological games with each other is fun but Coward raises the stakes considerably when he requires each of them to invite a guest to a weekend party, unknown to the others.
Considering the fact that the play was written in 1925, at the heart of the flapper era, there is an awful lot of light-hearted sex going on. All four family members invite inappropriate guests in the hope of a little pleasure. This backfires badly much to the amusement of the audience.
With the exception of Myra Arundel played by Olivia Colman as a strong, independent woman, the other trio are ineffectual pawns in the family's party games. Jeremy Northam playing a “diplomatist” proves dottily amusing, while the other pair become almost invisible in their embarrassment in this company.
Whether the strange staging adds anything to the party is doubtful but, as ever, Hay Fever contains much good humour, especially when the Bliss family are centre stage. It should therefore prove as popular as ever with Coward aficionados and anyone else looking for an uplifting evening in the theatre.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher