After seeing that Delfont Mackintosh had taken the decision to replace Million Dollar Quartet with a revival of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, I was dubious to say the least. As the country comes out of recession I struggled to imagine the theatregoing masses flocking to the Noel Coward Theatre to see a comedy of manners written over 80 years ago. However, whilst taking my seat at the back of an almost full capacity stalls the realisation set in that I had perhaps underestimated the pull this still has on an audience. The play centres around retired actress Judith Bliss and her eccentric family as they embark on the “Darkest Friday to Monday ever”. Four different house guests descend on the Bliss house with the intention of staying in the “Japanese room”, what follows is a glimpse into the weekend from hell, filled with ridiculous pastimes and to put no finer point on it, posh people behaving badly.
The curtain rises upon Sorrel and Simon Bliss (Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox) trying to pass a dull Friday afternoon with fierce sibling banter. The opening scene rattles along at an extremely pleasing pace as we are thrown into the midst of the Bliss family’s ridiculous world. Waller-Bridge and Fox shine as the horribly spoilt son and daughter, delivering their parts in annoyingly perfect RP, making their revolting characteristics even more amusing, particularly in the second act when Sorrel loses one of her favourite parlour games.
This production truly comes to life with the arrival of Lindsay Duncan as Judith Bliss. Despite the play generally being an ensemble piece, this work belongs to Duncan: she uses every word of Coward’s marvellous script to maximum effect, forcing the audience to hang on her every word so much so that I constantly looked forward to her next entrance.
Following Howard Davies’ success with the 2001 revival of Coward’s Private Lives, it was definitely a safe decision to set him once again at the directorial helm. Davies directs with excellent attention to detail and every inch of Bunny Christie’s extravagant set is put to good use. One of the best features of this Coward script is the use of silences to really accentuate the awkwardness of the situation and Davies doesn’t waste a second of it, nor does he make the simple mistake of allowing a pause too long to breathe.
Overall the production moves along at an exciting pace, however there was a brief period at the height of act one in which I felt the momentum drop dramatically; the arrival of the first house guest Sandy Tyrell (Sam Callis). Impetus is soon restored as Callis woos Judith with an amusing series of flirtatious comments but it is after this scene that Callis’ character unfortunately slips off the radar almost completely – along with Richard Gretham (Jeremy Northam). That said, the fault here seems to be more with the script than direction.
Playing Clara, the Bliss family’s overworked maid, is Theatreland veteran Jenny Galloway. As with any part she plays, Galloway brings that special mix of delivery and presence that only she can to the stage and, for me, made one of the smallest characters one of the most memorable. It is an absolute delight to see Galloway back in the West End.
Good contributions also from Amy Morgan as the well-meaning but empty-headed Jackie Coryton and Kevin R. McNally as David Bliss but once again, this production is a star vehicle, and in this instance that star is Lindsay Duncan.
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By David Coverdale @davidcoverdale9
Booking until 2nd June 2012
Noel Coward Theatre, London, WC2.