Her Majesty’s Theatre, Wed Dec 3
Noël Coward’s 1924 discourse on bad manners, Hay Fever, is in Adelaide for a very short season at Her Majesty’s Theatre. First produced in London’s West End the year after it was written, this new production, directed by Lindsay Posner, demonstrates admirably that poor behaviour is eternal and somewhat unchanging. Quite often, its perpetrators are blissfully unaware that their manners, or lack thereof, represent anything other than completely normal behaviour.
Over the course of a summer’s weekend in rural Berkshire, the Bliss household hosts four guests, each of whom has been invited by a member of the family… without, apparently, any of the other family members being forewarned. The four visitors arrive and proceed to bear the brunt of the unintentional fallout from the interactions between the members of this dysfunctional clan – not that the guests help themselves in any real way, either.
Judith Bliss, a recently retired star of the London stage and, quite probably, the catalyst for the weekend’s cacophony and chaos, rattles around the house and garden. David, her husband – a serious writer of barely adequate fiction – spends the bulk of his time upstairs, honing his craft. The couple presides over a family unit that also includes grown-up siblings, Sorel and Simon. The anything-but-serene household is completed by Judith’s ex-dresser and now housekeeper, Clara. Oblivious to the anxieties they create, the family members trample all over the sensibilities of their guests – each of whom has become an unwitting victim of their own flirtatious decision to come and spend the weekend.
Felicity Kendal is first-rate as Judith, the retired actress who was at home on the stage but somewhat all-at-sea in the home. Kendal’s presence pervades all scenes, including those in which she doesn’t appear. Simon Shepherd is enjoyable as the husband, a perfect self-absorbed foil for his wife’s eccentric behaviour, although he’s every bit as big a contributor to the bedlam. Alice Orr-Ewing and Edward Franklin as the adult children are terrific; the scenes featuring the two of them together are a highlight. Michael Simkins as Richard Greatham, Sara Stewart (Myra Arundel), James Corrigan (Sandy Tyrell) and Celeste Dodwell (Jackie Coryton) perform admirably, as their characters are systematically unravelled until the point is reached where a strategic retreat becomes the only solution. Corrigan and Dodwell almost perfectly capture the caricature of English upper-class air-headedness. Lisa Armytage, as Clara, is entertaining as she bustles in and out of the room, bringing tea and not much sympathy to the unfortunate and unwitting aristocrats. All of the performances are strong, and the various one-on-one relationships work well.
The impressive set, unchanging through the three acts, splendidly recreates the interior of a 1920s English summer house. The lighting, costumes, sound effects and music complete this convincing recreation of time and place.
Hay Fever isn’t a laugh a minute knee-slapper, but it is charmingly hectic, uncomplicated and quite lovely to look at.
by David Robinson
Hay Fever continues at Her Majesty’s Theatre until Sun Dec 7.
Images courtesy of Nobby Clark and James Swannell