Marina Prior stars in MTC's new production of Noël Coward’s countryside comedy of bad manners
In the lineage of British playwrights, Noël Coward is deceptively important. His delightfully foppish comedies – the genre in which he excelled – may not immediately brandish their significance in the same way as other important stage works of the 20th century, but captured in their characters is a record of a society in flux. As the old hierarchies of the ruling classes were steadily eroded by industrialisation and modern warfare, Coward’s farcical plays revealed the quiet desperation of a milieu unsure of its place in the world.
Hay Fever, penned by Coward in 1925, channels this whirlwind of social confusion through the romantic hysteria of the Bliss family: relics of a crumbling class system and wannabe bohemians. Each absorbed in their own affectations, they independently invite a set of guests to their country manor for the weekend. However, this lavish home soon becomes a gilded cage for the hapless gathering, as they are neglected, abused or objectified by their self-centred hosts. Reduced to little more than erotic pawns, the guests eventually conspire to escape this hellish ordeal, only to discover their captors are so utterly dysfunctional, the departure is barely noticed.
The Bliss family’s moneyed extravagance and creative pretensions erupt in a caricaturish study of an endangered species; through wealth, art and desire, they hopelessly grope for relevance in world moving away from them at break-neck speed, and yet for all this excess, they cannot buy themselves the comfort of truly belonging.
Or at least that’s what this play can express, given the right handling. It can also be staged with a more straightforward reading, as a jolly and superficially light comedy of manners. This new MTC production, by Lee Lewis, suffers from a lack of subtext – though not, one senses, by the director’s fault; rather it seems a case of the cast underselling their material.
In fact, the glimmers of Lewis’ obvious insight into Coward’s scintillating social satire are by far the most rewarding aspects of this production. Through a deft and confident use of the stage, she supplies canny moments of knowing objectivity, caught in a fleeting look or a lingering exit.
Christina Smith’s set is crowned by a decorative Tudor frieze half painted over by daubed, impressionist flowers, a visual reminder that a tradition-steeped past is being brazenly discarded to a less inhibited future. A deliberately assertive proscenium arch, trimmed with footlights, insinuates the meta-reality of a family for whom every act is theatre.
The performances, while they don’t quite reach a comparable level of sophistication, are nonetheless a hoot. As the irascible matriarch of the Bliss clan, retired leading lady Judith, musical theatre star Marina Prior plays handsomely for laughs, but lands her punchlines with more of a wallop than Coward requires. This comedy lives or dies by the careful finesse of its delivery, but often Prior opts for a more physical, dare I say cartoonish approach, that leaves little room for subtlety.
Judith’s grown-up yet woefully immature children, Sorel and Simon – played by Imogen Sage and Gareth Davies – strop about the stage like hormonal teens, more a product of latent adolesce than their spoiled, privileged upbringing.
The guests fare better, with MTC newcomer Alexandra Keddie nailing her turn as the paralysingly timid flapper Jackie, and Drew Weston summoning a perfectly horse-faced performance as nice-but-dim jock Sandy. Myra Arundel also impresses as Monica, the remorseful super-fan of self-aggrandising novelist David Bliss, delivered with a little too much bone-dry sanity by Kim Gyngell.
This is, without question, an entertaining production; no one will leave the theatre without a smile on their face. It does, however, play it rather safe, and in doing so misses some opportunities to create a richer experience. The Blisses are a complex hive mind, who needn’t be just thoughtless narcissists or outrageous clowns. Their actions can be framed as calculated manipulations, their cavalier crudities a twisted kind of sport, in the mode of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Here however, the tone is closer to Mommie Dearest via Downton Abbey.