Hay Fever

Noël Coward
Theatre Royal Haymarket
(2006)

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There is no doubt why Sir Peter Hall's revival is filling this large theatre. The name of Noël Coward and the promise of delightfully urbane humour never does any harm but these days, with the possible exception of Private Lives, will probably not get the public chattering without assistance.

On the acting side, while Peter Bowles and Belinda Lang have lengthy screen CVs and devoted followings, it is the presence in the flesh of our own dear queen of stage and screen, Dame Judi Dench that is the draw card.

It hardly needs saying that this consummate professional doesn't let anyone down though, at the performance under review, neither she nor her stage husband (both actors considerably older than their parts but who cares?) had the most auspicious of starts.

The Bliss family are delightfully eccentric and this impression was consolidated as first stage grande dame Judi(th) made it through her first line OK but fluffed the second while husband, David (Bowles) failed to take a packed tea tray even half-way upstairs before slyly enlisting the housekeeper's help to pick up the pieces.

First seen in 1923, Hay Fever is in some ways almost like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author in that a fictional stage family, in this case given to a life that consists of an almost permanent simulacrum of theatrical excess, are invaded by normal people.

Judith has spent so long on the stage enjoying constant adulation that even at her house in Cookham she wants more of the same. Simon Higlett has created this property in Stanley Spencer country on two and a bit levels but of necessity, nearly all of the action takes place in a busy, adaptable living space just inside the front door.

Judith's feeling that she is still on the stage is probably not helped by her clichéd housekeeper Clara who was formerly her dresser. Lin Blakley plays the part imitating such characters from every British film in the middle of the last century and even gets applause for a tuneful, if irrelevant, rendition of Tea for Two.

The quiet family weekend that Judith claimed to want was never really a runner. She had invited along a handsome young admirer, played by Charles Edwards. Unknowingly following suit, every other Bliss had also invited a house guest.

David had somehow picked up a dim and diminutive blonde, Olivia Darnley's Jackie Coryton, while beautiful young daughter Sorel chose a boring diplomatist given humorous life by that very talented towering beanpole, William Chubb.

Only son Simon managed to invite somebody with any spark of life or intelligence. His vampish guest, Myra Arundel "who uses sex as a sort of shrimping net", is caustically played by a drawling Belinda Lang who is fortunate enough to corner almost all of the best costumes.

The first of the three acts prior to the interval introduces the audience to the home team and guests; and proceeds to demonstrate how unsuited the latter are to entertain the former.

In Act 2, the couples not only play parlour games but a kind of 1920s speed dating, as pairings swap with unseemly rapidity. The mother's suitor becomes the daughter's while the son's wholly unsuitable target finds the father little better etc etc.

This allows the whole of the cast but particularly Dame Judi Dench to play up to the audience. The former Queen Victoria does so beautifully and much to their delight. There is no doubt that by the end of this act, her vast fan club will have been happy that they had obtained value for the substantial sum of money that such a well-known star's appearances demand.

The remainder of the Bliss family gleefully follows her lead, although while Peter Bowles and Kim Medcalf judge their performances well, Dan Stevens as Simon succumbs to the temptation of hamming it up more than even this "complete featherbed of false emotions" can justify.

The final act brings everything to a nice, appropriate closure with the family finding each other far better company than their generally tiresome guests.

Most of the pleasure in this play lies in Coward's witty repartee rather than his plotting. How can one resist a family that openly admits that "people stare in astonishment when we say perfectly normal things". It is also a star vehicle for a big name actress and one of London's biggest, Dame Judi Dench, makes the most of it.

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher