If, as Oscar Wilde once said, “a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal”, then Noel Coward’s delightfully flippant Hay Fever stays well away from the danger zone.
Written in just three days in 1924 when Coward was in his 20s, the ghost of Wilde looms large over this drawing room comedy, in which the lightning pace of razor-sharp dialogue and witty repartee never slows. The action takes place in the hall of the Bliss family home at Cookham, portrayed here beautifully by set designer Stuart Taylor. Large suspended window panes at the back of the stage look out onto an ivy-strewn trellis, and the living room is delightfully dishevelled and expressively elegant with a grand piano in one corner and a hat stand in the other. Taylor achieves a perfect blend of the middle-class, rusticated, Berkshire home with the family’s shabby bohemian pretensions, an oriental throw hung sloppily over the arm of the pale green leather chaise longue.
Each member of the Bliss family has invited a potential love interest to stay for the weekend, creating tension and discord between the characters which ultimately sees couples swap and the guests get more than they bargained for, as they are unwittingly caught up in the family’s theatricals, mere pawns in their domestic farce. This proves to be ultimately so uncomfortable for the guests that they are forced to creep out through the living room after breakfast, while the family, oblivious to it all, bicker around them.
Penny Lamport is utterly enthralling as Judith Bliss – mother to petulant Sorel (Emma Jane Richards) and the cruel Simon (Daniel Kewn) who delivers his clipped responses to perfection. Lamport plays a captivating retiree from the stage, and is wide-eyed and alluring – “Can you punt?” she asks young admirer Sandy Tyrrel (Mitch Donaldson) in deliciously laden tones as the pair lounge together. Later, she’s a trembling wreck, voice breaking as she laments the tragic loss of her youth and looks, yet with the hint of a smile that betrays the fact that her melancholia is mere histrionics. She and her husband, David, the bespectacled author striving over his novel in his study upstairs, played by Jake Wilson Craw, have created a family which, one gets the feeling, is a greater work of art than either his novels, or her career on the stage. Of the guests, Sara Jo Harrison shines as the glamorous and cold flapper girl Myra Arundel, stalking the living room floor with a sneer and a cigarette and Debbie Bolam is strong as the humiliated and ditzy Jackie Coryton.
Hay Fever is often compared to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but while Albee’s play contains a thought-provoking dark undercurrent that can make, at times, for uncomfortable watching, this is a more light-hearted and flippant look at a dysfunctional family in which wit fizzes constantly at the surface.