Sunday, February 19, 2012

“Hay Fever” – the challenge of a Life of Bliss

We are now so used to Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” being a frequently produced and popular part of his oeuvre that it seems extraordinary that there were so few professional productions for nearly forty years after its first appearance in 1925. The new production at, appropriately, the “Noel Coward Theatre” is the third I have seen in the past year (those at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick and the Rose Theatre, Kingston were the other two). The play is borderline farce/comedy with not much of a plot but plenty of brilliant writing giving the opportunity in a few of its roles for the actors to shine. The central character is the Grande Dame of the theatre Judith Bliss – a role which offers actresses of a certain age a splendid opportunity to strut their stuff. However rather like Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest” the casting of this role often falls to someone who is, shall we say, a little too mature for the role. Edith Evans was 76 at the National Theatre’s famous revival in 1964 and Judi Dench 72 in Peter Halls’ production of 2006. Mrs Bliss’s daughter Sorel is 19 so such casting stretches credulity, or biology, somewhat! There is no such problem for Lindsay Duncan who, at 61, plays the part for the first time in Howard Davies’s new production. Indeed not only does she seem wholly believable as Sorel and Simon’s mother but the fact that she is pursued by an ardent admirer, Sandy Tyrell , for her beauty and physical attraction as much as for her fame seems wholly believable as well.

Lindsay Duncan is marvellous – a quite restrained performance given the potential for over-acting that lies in the part. Coward is sometimes accused of misogyny (wrongly in my view) and Judith Bliss is certainly something of a monster – a show-off and incredibly self-obsessed. But in Lindsay Duncan’s hands you feel that there is not just parody but transparent parody in the behaviour of the character. In other words her public, in this case her family and their unfortunate weekend guests, expect a certain performance from her - and by God they are going to get it! The artifice extends to all four members of the family who live their lives on the cusp between reality and fantasy – often tipping over completely into the imaginary. At the start of the play Sorel and Simon are seen behaving like characters in a play, which of course they are - but there is a sort of play within the play in their mannered and “actory” behaviour. Freddie Fox’s fidgety and feline Simon – part camp, part Puck – is a little strange at first until you realise that he is just “acting”. However whether he is really pursuing and/or being pursued by Olivia Colman’s racy Myra (who uses "sex as a sort of shrimping-net" according to Judith) is not clear.

In “Hay Fever” the female characters are far stronger and more interesting than the men. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is terrific as Sorel and her pretend seduction of her mother’s paramour Sandy Tyrell is nicely judged. Olivia Colman confessed to being nervous on the preview night I saw, partly because her husband from “Rev”, Tom Hollander, was in the audience. Well if she was it enhanced rather than detracted from her performance as Myra. And she looked stunning in a beautiful little black dress! Amy Morgan as the flapper Jackie Coryton looked very pretty and was appropriately overwhelmed by the play-acting around her. And Jenny Galloway’s as Clara, the no nonsense dresser turned general factotum, was very good as well. The male characters are much more of a problem and rather anonymous. Even an actor as skilled as Jeremy Northam struggled to make much of the bland and dull Richard Greatham and the same applied to Kevin R McNally’s preoccupied and introspective David Bliss and Sam Callis's puzzled Sandy Tyrell.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge told me after the performance that Howard Davies directed them not to be overly “Noel Coward” in what they did – so we did not get any Coward speech patterns or mannerisms from any of the actors. This is not to say that the play is naturalistic or is in any way meant to be telling a credible real story – it is fantasy and farce alright, but of a measured kind – not least in Lindsay Duncan’s very subtle Judith. The tradition of Hay Fever is that is played as a rather extreme comedy of manners – post Wildean, but with some not just epigramic links with Oscar. The connection comes also from the fact that the main characters are, as they are in Wilde, of a class and a standing that sets them apart. This generally means that the speech patterns are upper middle class and the setting is comfortable bordering on the lavish. In Howard Davies’s production the former certainly applies – all of the characters apart from Clara and Jackie speak and behave as if shortage of money is not one of their problems. However the setting, by Bunny Christie in this production, does not conform at all to this tradition. Instead of the play taking place in an elegant drawing room with French windows opening onto a lawn rolling gently to the river the set here is a sort of bohemian tip. One of the cast, who better remain anonymous, likened it to me as a sort of Shoreditch Warehouse. The intent was presumably to premise that because the lifestyle of the Bliss’s is bohemian therefore they would live in chaos in a tumbledown mess of a house. This just doesn’t work – not least because the social life of a retired Grande Dame actress and a successful author would involve plenty of home entertaining - and they would want to take every opportunity to show off a bit by having an elegant and well-furnished house. The embracing of the freedoms of a bohemian lifestyle needn't mean the absence of Liberty's.

The set aside this is a very good production and a thought-provoking interpretation of Noel Coward’s memorable play. Coward has plenty of style and show in all of his work but for all that he was deep down quite a serious man – and his talent was far more than “just” one to amuse. There is a serious undercurrent in all of Noel Coward’s work and in Hay Fever we see witting and unwitting cruelty as well as a studied contempt at times for those not blessed with the thespian skills, and “couldn’t care less” attitude of the family Bliss. When the four guests creep out at the end we feel a sense of relief for them and hope that the experience was not too scarring. Meanwhile we suspect that the family is quietly contemplating who their next victims will be!


Blogger Jillian said...

Enjoyed your review. Wish I wass able to come to London and see it. Thanks for this post.

5:01 PM  

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