The director and designer behind Sydney Theatre Company's 2015 hit After Dinner reunite for Noël Coward’s countryside comedy of bad manners
Drama critics are rarely enthusiastic about a comedy of manners that is sure to be thoroughly enjoyed by everybody, but we’re not bashful about loving every minute of this very English classic, especially the long embarrassing silences.
Critics found the 1925 premiere “trivial”, “thin,” and “tenuous,” but audiences laughed all the way to the box office, and by 1960 The Times judged Hay Fever "Mr Noel Coward's best play... one of the most perfectly engineered comedies of the century.” But most revivals have proved unsatisfactory, retaining a musty period odour and lacking the fresh immediacy that should always be the reward for going to the theatre rather than a cinema.
That freshness is abundant on the set here at the Sydney Opera House: the conservatory an English country house, into which the four members of the Bliss family each invites a guest for the weekend. Designer Alicia Clements’s delightfully cluttered and unkempt home anachronistically spans the sixties and seventies, vaguely post-war but probably pre-AIDS, consistent with the many invitations to intergenerational promiscuity casually dangled by the Blisses before their incredulous guests.
The ostensibly dysfunctional Bliss family are actually blissfully happy with each other, but to give themselves a little variety in their pre-Netflix home entertainment they occasionally improvise psychological experiments involving their houseguests, who understandably find it all rather rude.
It’s like Albee’s 1962 cocktail cabinet horror story Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, only funny and without the malice. Perhaps Jerry Seinfeld also picked up the extensive focus on details such as the scraping of toast, displacement of the sugar bowl, or a guest accidentally knocking a barometer off the wall (the three high points of the action in the final act), because through the 1990s he was churning out a TV series consistently about the same topic: nothing.
Or at least nothing but the characters, who became household names. Hay Fever is not quite as flawless as Wilde’s 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest – a few dated references might be deleted without loss – but it remains an influential masterpiece.
Within the play are two shining satirical examples of shoddy writing: a draft of David Bliss’ latest novel read aloud over the dinner table against his family’s incessant and prolonged quibbles, and passages from his wife Judith Bliss’ stage hits such as Love's Whirlwind. While contemplating another return to the limelight, she indulges in reliving the most melodramatic moments of her acting career (“He is your father!”) before the incomprehending guests. “Is this a game?” they find themselves asking again and again.
The role of Judith Bliss is a star vehicle, and here Heather Mitchell is truly magnificent in it. Traditionalists might question the suitability of inserting Amy Winehouse’s 2006 hit ‘Back to Black,’ but we adored the lipsync cabaret. Nobody could steal the show from such a strong cast but Mitchell almost gets away with it. She both draws genuine empathy in the role of the slightly pathetic aging Judith, and unreserved hilarity as the young matinee idol in Judith’s old B-grade romantic roles-within-a-role.
Between the wars Coward was highly successful as both a playwright and a director, so we can believe his judgement that Hay Fever was “far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform that I have ever encountered. To begin with it has no plot at all, and remarkably little action. Its general effectiveness therefore depends on expert technique from each and every member of the cast.”
Here we are given flawless technique throughout, fine casting, and a quality of direction that we would expect from an international master at the top of his game. This is the young Imara Savage’s third play as director for the Sydney Theatre Company, and it has left us hoping for another thirty.
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