When reviving a play written 93 years ago, there is a risk it may be buried under so many years of dust that it will appear to be nothing more than a dull, nostalgic antique. So in order to for it to glisten, you really have to pour all your love and care into it and that certainly seems to be the case with this dazzling new production from director Lee Lewis of Noel Coward’s 1924 classic comedy of manners.
Basically a parody of both the idle rich and artistic temperaments, Hay Fever is set in the charming Berkshire village of Cookham, England, at the country house of Judith (Marina Prior) and David Bliss (Kim Gyngell); he a novelist, she a recently retired actress. Here they live with their two adult children: Simon (Gareth Davies), a passionate artist, and Sorel (Imogen Sage), who seems to be occupied with little other than her social life. Being bored as they are, each has invited a guest to stay for the weekend without first consulting the others and so four guests are imminently due for tea, much to the chagrin of harried housekeeper, and Judith’s former dresser, Clara (Marg Downey).
Hay Fever is a story essentially without plot, it simply observes a situation and the personalities within it, while revelling in their behaviour. Once each of the guests arrive – Sandy Tyrell (Drew Weston), an amateur boxer and fan of Judith; Myra Arundel (Monica Sayers), seasoned temptress and current subject of Simon’s obsession; Richard Greatham (Simon Gleeson), a diplomatist Sorel recently met at a dance; and Jackie Coryton (Alexandra Keddie), a sweet but foolish flapper that David wishes to study “in domestic surroundings” – the family behave ill-manneredly towards each other’s visitors, so when tea is served the conversation becomes more than a little stilted.
After dinner that night, the family’s penchant for winding each other up and provoking a dramatic reaction is brought to the fore when they insist on playing a charades-like parlour game where one must guess the adverb being acted out by the others. While the Blisses delight in the flirtation, their guests become profoundly uncomfortable and the game dissolves into each family member pairing off with a visitor they didn’t invite, to promiscuously dramatic effect.
As the histrionic Judith, Prior is simply sensational. Using a career’s worth of theatrical experience to define the gloriously over-the-top matriarch, she lets not a twinkling of attention-grabbing juiciness in the script to go wanting. This seems a role Prior has been working her whole life towards and she relishes the opportunity. Even a seductive moment between Judith and Richard gives Prior the chance to showcase her musical talents through a delightful chanson at the piano, which also highlights the technical intricacies of Christina Smith’s simply stunning, Broadway-quality set design.
Less musical opportunity is afforded the equally talented Gleeson as stuffy, proper English gent Richard, but he makes no less occasion of the diplomat’s correct, non-committal approach. So suave and debonair, Gleeson makes Richard’s discomfited reactions nothing less than charming.
Davies and Sage are wonderfully eccentric as the playfully warring siblings, in a classically British middle-class way. Like characters straight from an Enid Blyton novel, they are perfectly un-self conscious and easily measure up to their mother’s madness. As a trio with Prior they make the first act of this production truly sizzle.
Less can be said of Gyngell as the patriarch of the family, who through a lethargic performance fails to ignite the characterisation of a passionate writer, nor Sayers, who comes off aloofly enigmatic, like a character from Cluedo, rather than sexually carnivorous like the seductive black widow Myra is.
MTC debutantes Weston and Keddie are simply delightful as the manipulated objects of Sorel and Simon’s affections. Weston’s charming ‘what-ho’ youthfulness and unspoilt, fresh-faced looks are perfect for the athletic Sandy, while Keddie’s performance is faultlessly innocent and naïve, showing great art in such an artless character as Miss Coryton. Both have excellent comic timing and physical comedy skills making them welcome for a quick return to MTC’s stages. Meanwhile, seasoned veteran Downey gets to make an amusing stab at a song and dance routine, but feels somewhat miscast as put-upon housekeeper Clara. A confusing accent also doesn’t help to fully illustrate the untidy, impertinent woman.
Lewis’ direction helps keep this classical three act production moving at mostly a cracking pace. She clearly has a great love for Coward’s language and has ensured every dated reference is skilfully illustrated to deliver its full meaning to today’s audience. It’s always wonderful to watch a production that has had a devoted and thoughtful eye leading it, especially when it runs through all the technical aspects of the show. From Christina Smith’s gorgeous mock-Tudor hall setting, to Esther Marie Hayes’ perfectly delectable costume designs, full of stunning satins, drop-waisted dresses, double breasted suits and pleats galore. Special mention must also go to the wig masters who have excelled themselves with some truly beautiful ladies hairstyles.
This production of Hay Fever is a perfectly polished gem showing only the tiniest of flaws that make it nonetheless stunning. If you’re a fan of classic comedies done well, then you’re in for a treat with this quintessential Noel Coward wonder.