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Hay Fever

Nicola Mostyn finds Noel Coward's bohemian comedy a blast of high-spirited summer fun

Published on July 15th 2008.


Hay Fever

In the Welcome paragraph of the Hay Fever programme, Director Greg Hersov tells us: “Hay Fever, one of the great English comedies, was written by a 24-year-old Noel Coward, in the garden, in just three days!” Not only are these words liable to challenge/depress any aspiring playwright, they also explain much about this comedy of manners, a gay, fizzing tale of an eccentric family and their house guests, which takes place over three acts with two intervals.

Judith is a great character, consumed with how she presents herself to the world, yet completely aware of this fact. When she asks the diplomat, “Will you lean on that piano in an attentive attitude,” it reveals her underlying appeal: she’s fake, she knows it, and she quite encourages everyone else to be, too.

The family in question are the Blisses. As the audience are taking their seats, the son, Simon Bliss (Chris New) is already on stage, sketching on the floor. It’s an attention-seeking detail which sets the tone for the family’s behaviour, for as we soon discover, the Blisses are not like other people. They are egotistical, theatrical, self-obsessed and utterly unable to be natural. This, says Simon’s sister Sorel (Fiona Button), is the problem. “We’re a beastly family and I hate us.” Sorel has invited stuffy diplomat Richard (Simon Treves) down for the weekend and she is worried about her family’s lack of manners. As she resolves to improve herself, her plans take an even more awkward turn when she discovers that the Japanese room she has marked out for Richard has some competition: Simon also has a guest arriving, the glamorous Myra Arundel (Lysette Anthony).

When their mother, retired actress Judith Bliss, sweeps in to announce that she has asked a chipper young chap Sandy Tyrell (Simon Bubb) to come down it seems that they have a full house, until the father David Bliss (Ben Keaton) commands that a certain flapper should be picked up from the station this weekend and installed in the Japanese room.

This is a play of bad manners and melodrama. Against a backdrop of chaise longues and cigarettes, the Blisses spend the first act acting, with Sorel bemoaning (melodramatically) the strangeness of her family, Simon hurling himself around in a tantrum like a five-year-old, and their mother, a queen bee of a character, showing them how this fakery should really be done.

Though amusing, their self-indulgence could get tiresome after a while, but happily after the first interval things step up a gear. Now the guests have been installed, they become subject to the whims of the family and, regardless of their original intentions, they are innocents in comparison to this affected foursome. As the eight play party games, the theme becomes clear: life is a game, or a stage to the Blisses, and their house guests are merely convenient props.

Coward noted that this was a play in which he began to concentrate on the humour in a scene, rather than in the dialogue, and this is noticeable; the comic lines delivered are not always laugh-out-loud hilarious, but, that said, they do build up the atmosphere and leave room for the real target of the humour – the cynical way the Blisses entrap the innocent guests in their spectacular set-pieces of love, betrayal and sacrifice.

The cast is excellent. Chris New as Simon manages to play the exasperating, immature lovelorn fop as highly amusing, without tipping over into annoying, while Lysette Anthony is coolly beautiful as the (initial) object of Simon’s affections. Simon Treves has some great expressions as the diplomat who enjoys the energetic exchanges of this bohemian family, at least at first.

Fiona Button is convincing as the daughter whose glimmer of self-awareness is constantly drowned by the antics of her family, and Ben Keaton plays it low-key as the seemingly aloof, disapproving patriarch who turns out to be just as excellent a player as his wife. But it is Belinda Lang as Judith Bliss who steals the show. Judith is a great character, consumed with how she presents herself to the world, yet completely aware of this fact. When she asks the diplomat, “Will you lean on that piano in an attentive attitude,” it reveals her underlying appeal: she’s fake, she knows it, and she quite encourages everyone else to be, too.

With its three short acts and frivolous feel, Hay Fever is a fun, smart and elegant slice of imagined Bohemia, like a midday cocktail in the garden. Perfect summer entertainment.

Hay Fever has extended its run until 16 August. Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester, M2 7DH. 0161 833 9833. www.royalexchange.co.uk/bookonline.

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