The Peter Hall production
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
When I were a lad, in those heady days after Look Back in Anger burst onto the theatrical scene in 1956, we despised Coward. He was everything theatre shouldn't be: totally divorced from "real life", a fantasy world in which rich, beautiful people showed off their wit and "people like us" were servants and often figures of fun - and often the target of that wit. The drawing room was its milieu in which the arrogance of the entrenched ruling classes was given free rein.
But, as always, the whirlygig of time brings in its revenges and now I, and many like me, are eating our words. For Coward is good. Yes, the society he portrays is effete and totally divorced from the real world, but the plays are so beautifully written and - what we didn't realise at the time in our political blindness - Coward was just as critical of that society as ever we were, although his criticism was subversive and from within, unlike our iconoclastic outsider view.
And now I return to Hay Fever (a play in which I made an early - oh so very early! - appearance as Sandy Tyrell in the sixties) for the first time in goodness knows how many years. Written (in three days!) in 1924 and first produced a year later, it lacks the acidity of much of his later work but its witty dissection of the theatrical Bliss family's relationships with the (much more colourless) outside world still works effectively and has the audience laughing from the off.
Structurally what we have is almost a play within a play in which the Bliss family perform for each other using their guests as unsuspecting actors - or even props. Partners are swapped with a rapidity which would be unbelieveable in the crudest porn movie, great emotional "scenes" are conjured out of minor incidents and, at the end, the guests sneak out to escape back to London while the family create yet another drama over the breakfast table.
The acting style needed to carry off this kind of piece must be heavily stylised and yet have a grounding in reality. The characters are all types and yet each has a definite personality. Playing must be on the verge of caricature, but never cross over. Joe Harmston, who takes on the great responsibility of recreating Peter Hall's original direction, does so deftly, keeping his cast on this narrow path.
Stephanie Beacham, who has played many glamorous roles in her time, gives us a Judith Bliss whom one can believe dazzled onstage and could ensnare youngsters like Sandy Tyrell (Christopher Naylor) with ease. Madeleine Hutchins (Sorel Bliss) and William Ellis (Simon Bliss) seem on the verge of breaking out into normality but in the end cannot resist the familial dramatics. Christopher Timothy's David Bliss appears at first to be the "normal" one of the family but his part in this drama is to be the observer, the commentator, who is just as much an actor as the rest.
As for Sandy, Richard Greatham (Andrew Hall) and Jackie Coryton (Emily Pollet), their excitement, which turns to bemusement and then panic, is beautifully conveyed. Myra Arundel (she who uses "sex as a kind of shrimping net", played by Sarah Berger) is more aware of what to expect, but the drama proves too much even for her and her ultra-cool (anachronistic, I know, but it sums it up so well) attitude cracks under the strain.
Finally there is the obligatory down-to-earth servant, Clara (Pamela Buchner), who had been Judith's dresser and has learned to take all the dramatics in her stride. She had her moment in the spotlight, getting a delighted round of applause as she sang Tea for Two (not a Coward song!) while rearranging the breakfast table in the second act, timing both to finish at exactly the same moment. A minor thing, true, but typical of Peter Hall's attention to detail which is evident throughout the production.
Great fun, and a welcome reminder of why Coward was known as "The Master"!
We also have an interview with Christopher Timothy by Sheila Connor (2006)
Reviewer: Peter Lathan