I really wish I liked Noel Coward. I mean, I get that he is witty and most of his plays are beautifully crafted. I also understand that he was an extraordinary actor, commentator, screenwriter, film star, songwriter, socialite, lothario, impresario etc etc, but there’s something about the old cad that rubs me up the wrong way.
Perhaps it’s that he wrote in parts for himself in almost all of his productions. Perhaps it’s that his ego and thirst for fame outshone the craft. Perhaps, simply put, he’s not my cup of tea. Today, in a world where being famous for fame’s sake is easy currency, I fear Coward, instead of writing, might bother himself in celebrity magazines by doing something wicked and wonderful.
Hayfever is one of Coward’s earlier plays. Quite why the Oldham Coliseum‘s artistic director, Kevin Shaw, decided on this over Coward’s later works is the first of many conundrums. It is his least accomplished, least funny and least plot-driven. Indeed, ten minutes after curtain up, I’m wondering when the story or the laughs are going to begin.
The Bliss’s country home in Cookham is the setting for the weekend’s activities and, as the rain pours down ruining the whole affair, it’s clear that the guests are minor distractions from the family’s grandiose view of themselves. Their shallow and petty self-obsession means that the guests are left feeling pushed out, awkward and embarrassed.
Jackie Morrison does a fine job of playing the matriarch, as do Henry Devas and Caitlin Thorburn as her spoilt children Simon and Sorel Bliss. Polly Lister as Myra Arundel and Andrew Pollard as Richard Greatham, the downtrodden and bruised guests, are also splendid. In fact, there isn’t a bad performance in the nine-strong cast but they don’t get the laughs they deserve, either.
Shaw describes this comedy of manners as a “comedy of bad manners”. I’d go as far as to say that this production is a comedy with all the comedy removed entirely. There are few laughs from the auditorium because flogging meaning into the meaningless only leads to a perplexed audience.
At the interval, thankfully, and by way of a distraction, there were cucumber sandwiches served by pretty little flapper-girls and flutes of cava with strawberries floating a-top. Refreshments were welcome after an hour of pondering.
During the next act, I separated the production from Coward’s words. Yes, I concluded, they were funny and, yes, I suppose, he was clever – albeit in a rather supercilious way – and yes, sadly, this production had missed the point by trying to find one.
If I had taken a camera to the theatre, I would share with you, dear reader, the funniest thing about the evening. Sharing the front row with us were two retired guide dogs who seemed about as enthralled with the production as we were (not at all – apart from when the breakfast things appeared).
I’m glad I’ve revisited the Coliseum, though. It’s tucked away down an alley in Oldham behind boarded up bars and broken down clubs. It’s had a refurb, too and looks well for it. It’s a lovely theatre and the fact it’s still up and running, producing theatre with high production value in these austere times, is a small miracle.
This isn’t one of the Coliseum’s best offerings, but Faulks’s Birdsong is up next. Please try and support your local. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
Review by Lucia Cox
Where: Oldham Coliseum, Oldham town centre
When: until June 29, 2013
More info: www.coliseum.org.uk