Hay Fever – Duke of York’s Theatre

At times it is easy to wonder if the West End is beginning to lack a little imagination, and it feels as if we’re seeing the same old plays going round and round. That’s not to say the plays themselves are intrinsically bad but seeing the same ones appear so often can feel like stagnation. We come to accept that there’ll be at least 3 Hamlets at any one time, but that has become a pivotal rite of passage for many actors. Yet, do we really need yet another revival of Hay Fever just 3 years since the last one?

Now don’t get me wrong, Hay Fever is a great play and immensely popular. I’m also a big Coward fan which is why, despite my misgivings I went along to this – that and the £10 seat courtesy of Last Minute. Yet, in the time I’ve lived in London I’ve seen a pleasant version with Judi Dench and a very good one in 2012 with Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam, so we probably don’t need another quite yet and certainly not one that is at best mediocre. Now Private Lives was sensibly paced, after a wonderful 2001 production with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, it didn’t come to the West End again until 2010 in a forgettable version with Kim Cattrall and Matthew Mcfaddyn which was utterly eclipsed by the brilliant pairing of Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor in 2013. Noel Coward wrote a lot of plays but yet we only get Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit on a loop.

The reviews from Bath, where this production originated, were very good, yet the London critics have been far less favourable. So why did I go? Well, I was at a loose end and found an unbelievably cheap ticket, plus Felicity Kendal was so good in the The Vortex in 2008 with a pre-Downton Dan Stevens, that it seemed worth a shot. It’s not awful, it’s just rather lacklustre and the whole thing is trying a little too hard to be funny. I’ve said this before, but Coward’s writing is like Shakespeare in that it has a rhythm to it that you need to trust. If the actor tries too hard to make it funny then it spoils the subtly and can feel a bit dated, whereas playing it fairly straight and letting the words do their job brings out all the humour for the audience.

Hay Fever is set at the Bliss’s country house one weekend in June. Each member of this bohemian and theatrical family has invited a companion down for the weekend without telling any of the others, so when the guests arrive a series of farcical scenes ensue as the family bicker, swap partners and torture their unsuspecting visitors. Much of the humour derives from the increasing bewilderment of the guests as the Bliss family ‘act-out’. The biggest mistake this production makes is taking the interval too soon; there are three acts and the decision to break after the first (just 45 minutes in) is rather inexplicable. By this point not enough has happened to hook the audience into the various permutations of the story, nor is the end of Act One much of a cliff-hanger. It is more conventional and actually far better to stop after Act Two for several reasons; first Acts One and Two take place on the same day whereas Act Three is the following morning; second, the first two Acts are about cause, building up the drama and oddness of the Bliss family ending with a moment of chaos and confusion, while the final Act is about consequences and resolution thus it is more natural to separate them; third by the end of Act One the audience only has a lingering suspicion about the oddness of the family and doesn’t yet know them well enough to be invested in what’s going on, so it’s not really a suitable moment to stop for drinks. The theatre should strongly consider shifting the interval to help pace the play better in the remainder of its run.

The acting is also rather variable and quite mannered, with some performances quite clearly outstripping the rest. Felicity Kendall is largely very good as Judith Bliss the fading actress matriarch desperate for attention. Her greater familiarity with Coward comes across clearly in making Judith’s eccentricities believable rather than hysterical. It’s a little overplayed at times, particularly in Act One where she practically turns into Fenella Fielding, but hits her stride with the feigned melodrama of the later scenes. Sara Stewart as the vampy Myra Arundel is also great fun, wringing ounces of innuendo and allure from her lines, while displaying a no-nonsense approach to the Bliss intrigues. Michael Simkins is also good as a rather unnoticeable Richard Greatham although doesn’t quite bring the same geek-ish comic charm that Jeremy Northam offered in the 2012 production.

The other parts are unfortunately a little more am-dram, not managing quite so well with the subtly or darker elements of Coward’s script. Alice Orr-Ewing is a rather shouty and unvarying Sorrell, while Edward Killingback as Sandy Tyrell looks like he’s walked out of a P.G. Wodehouse, overdoing the buffoonery and not nearly enough of the ardent star-struck admirer. These secondary characters don’t need to be clowns as they all have not-quite-blameless romantic agendas of their own which have brought them down for the weekend so having them all play innocent is quite misleading. I don’t even want to talk about what Simon Shepherd was doing as novelist Mr Bliss, I still can’t work it out and whatever it was he shouldn’t have been doing it at all.

The design is lovely, a large 1920s country house with staircase and landing to give Director Lindsay Posner some variety in staging. Nice as it is, it felt more Agatha Christie manor than bohemian retreat, not quite dishevelled or untidy enough for a family with only one maid / housekeeper / cook and not the slightest concern for social norms. It would have been useful to see something a little more disorderly to match their character, and it just added to the ‘not quite right’ feel of this production. As I say it wasn’t awful, the second and third acts are considerably better than the first and there is some good acting to enjoy. It all just lacks that joy of the Coward farce as events begin to build to their calamitous conclusion.

If you want to see it, then Last Minute has tickets from £10 for the Upper Circle which is very good value for this revival. My seat was upgraded to the stalls on the night so I ended up sitting in a seat worth more than five times as much. A useful tip is to buy balcony tickets for previews because unless it’s a juggernaut show with some major film star you quite often get upgraded to fill the seats lower down, especially for matinees. Once the press reviews are out, you’ll be lucky to get a seat at all never mind a bad one. If the reviews have been mediocre, as is the case here, then just look out for deals and you can end up in a fantastic seat for a fraction of the price. This version of Hay Fever is ok but doesn’t crackle as it should. But please, a message to directors and producers, let’s leave Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit alone for a while. In my Christmas post I asked for David Tennant to have a go at Present Laughter and Noel Coward wrote a ton of other plays so give us all a break and revive one of them instead.

Hay Fever is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 1 August. Tickets are available from £10 on Last Minute or from £20-£80 from ATG, but please please don’t pay £80 for this! Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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