A creaky old production of a creaky old Noël Coward comedy
You could argue that the dreadful, self-consciously bohemian Bliss family at the heart of ‘Hay Fever’ are a little like the Kardashians. There’s no such thing as ‘offstage’ in their world. But that’s the most modern parallel you could draw from this creaky revival of Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy of manners about an ex-actress incapable of sharing the limelight.
Lindsay Posner’s production – transferring to the West End from Theatre Royal Bath for a limited run – does few favours to one of Coward’s best known plays. Here, Felicity Kendal takes on the scenery-eating role of Judith, the self-obsessed former star of hammy stage melodramas, as well as wife to highly strung novelist David and mother to spoilt brats Sorel and Simon.
There’s some enjoyable stuff about the Bliss family’s pretentious relocation to the British countryside, like Judith’s determination to learn the Latin names of all the flowers in the garden to impress visitors. And when hapless guests Myra, Richard and Jackie find themselves ensnared in the family’s perpetual role-play, we get some fun scenes of excruciating social awkwardness.
But while Kendal has a ball as Judith – twirling out the play’s put-downs with a beautifully absent-minded air and, occasionally, a Linda Blair-style growl as she wafts across the stage – Coward’s wit is too often blunted by the production’s panto-style tone. If every other character who wanders in through the door is as hammy as the actual drama queen, what’s the point?
This tendency to over-sell everything only serves to draw attention to what is, quite frankly, the play’s clunky structure, as various pairings of Blisses and guests neatly take their turn to be bewildered and baffled in a ramshackle drawing room overflowing with books and paper. Everything looks great, evoking the 1920s setting perfectly, but this detail is lost in the direction.
On the plus side, newcomer Alice Orr-Ewing makes an assured theatrical debut as a horrible Sorel who stays on the sharp side of caricature, and enough of the essential frothy fun in ‘Hay Fever’ survives. But when there are so many other Coward plays worth staging, it’s sad that the West End – where it’s receiving its second revival in three years – keeps returning to this one.