Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, written when the playwright was just twenty-five and first performed in London in 1925, remains one of the most enduring British comedies, with the central character of Judith Bliss having been played by a whole host of our finest actors including Judi Dench, Lindsay Duncan and now Felicity Kendal, currently starring at the Duke of York’s Theatre following a hugely successful première of the in-house production at Theatre Royal Bath, directed by Lindsay Posner.
As a new production of Hay Fever tends to be rolled out every few years, it can get tedious when the plot is so familiar to most of us; namely each member of the Bliss family inviting an acquaintance ‘down for the weekend’ without informing anyone, let alone the family’s lethargic stage-dresser-turned-maid, Clara (Mossie Smith). Cue family arguments about sleeping arrangements and in particular ‘The Japanese Room’ which everyone has earmarked for their own guest.
Judith (Felicity Kendal) is an ageing actress who is considering coming out of retirement (again) and has invited her young admirer, Sandy Tyrell (Edward Killingback); her novelist husband David (Simon Shepherd), who rarely steps outside his study, has meanwhile invited his blonde and dippy devotee Jackie Coryton (Celeste Dodwell); daughter Sorel (Alice Orr-Ewing) has invited Richard Greatham (Michael Simkins) a much older diplomat whom she imagines herself in love with; and son Simon, a layabout/bohemian artist (Edward Franklin) has invited his latest crush, Myra Arundel (Sara Stewart), who secretly happens to be more interested in his father.
The action of this country house party farce takes place entirely at the Blisses’ country residence in Cookham, namely their cluttered hallway-come-living room, over a period of less than twenty-four-hours; the 1920s costumes and an Arts and Crafts-style set you never tire of, designed by Peter McKintosh, immediately transporting you to the inter-war period of cigarette smoking, flapper dresses, and general gay abandon.
From Clara answering the door only to promptly slam it shut in the face of any new arrival, to a series of discourtesies from the entire Bliss family, who are all obscenely neglectful of their guests’ needs and more interested in pleasing themselves, this comedy of bad manners sizzles thanks to a brilliantly cast ensemble led by Kendal, who is on top form as Judith, a woman who invokes as much theatricality off stage as on, and much to the amazement of her new acquaintances. If Judi Dench (albeit inimitable) was too old for the role in Peter Hall’s 2006 production and Lindsay Duncan too serious back in 2012, then the energetic Kendal is nigh on perfect.
A family with so much pent up sexual tension, not least Judith who is desperate to feel attractive and youthful again, naturally leads to an imbroglio of romantic encounters and mix-ups, with all the weekend guests ending up feeling like they’ve lost their way in Hampton Court Maze and in desperate need of rescuing. Thankfully Sandy Tyrell has wheels…
The family are so caught up in their own little world that they only notice the departure of the four guests the following morning when the roar of Tyrell’s motorcar speeding away interrupts their argument over breakfast. Shepherd brings the house down by remarking how very rude of their guests to leave without saying goodbye. Ignore the disappointing notices, this Theatre Royal Bath Production is as delightfully camp as Coward probably looked when holding a tea-cup, possesses exquisite comic timing and is as frothy as a newly uncorked bottle of Champagne – Coward at his very best and reaffirming his place as a comic genius.
Hay Fever at Duke of York’s Theatre until 1st August 2015. Running time approximately 2 hours including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.