HAY FEVER Theatre Royal, Bath




Here’s a 1924 creation: swooping and frivolously asymmetric as a drop-waisted flapper-dress, flashily well-crafted as a Deco windowpane. Its first critics complained that it has no plot, and indeed in that regard the 25-year-old Noel Coward was well ahead of his time. All that happens is a dreadful weekend, or 18 hours of it. The Bliss family, a quarrelsome quartet of fascinating but hellishly uninhibited bohemians, have each invited down a guest without warning the others. The matriarch Judith, an actress bored in retirement, has a young admirer Sandy (a nicely pop-eyed James Corrigan); her ill-tempered novelist husband David has absentmindely recruited a young girl to study as a “type”, while the daughter Sorel has asked an FO grandee old enough to be her father, and the son a fortyish socialite vamp who hates Judith.


All the family enjoy creating dramas, with no mercy for the hapless civilians who are in turn ignored, embarrassed, flatteringly half-seduced, manipulated, compromised, and driven to flight. And that’s it. Between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning the Blisses stalk, confuse and appal their prey.


It is a play everyone should see in youth, and again when tempted to indulge parental dramatics in age; just as everyone should read and re-read Cold Comfort Farm and be armed against the ruthlessness of those who live in a “featherbed of false emotions” as one victim puts it. For this therapeutic treat, you could do a lot worse than Lindsay Posner’s sharp, gleeful two-hour production.


Felicity Kendal is Judith Bliss: not the Junoesque tragedy-queen she is sometimes played as but a petite, shingled no-no-nanette figure perfectly in period, hurling herself into the insincerely tragic scenes with gusto but always indicating the monstrous woman’s watchful steeliness, alert for the next opportunity of mischief, flirtation or ideally both. Kendal adds some lovely touches: whenever Judith does her famous line about “dreams trodden in the dust” she points at the supposed dust, every limb trembling hammily; but in seconds returns to her beady-eyed search for attention. The famous second-act closer has her draped, sobbing theatrically, halfway up the banisters as she recreates her favourite melodrama “Love’s Whirlwind” . The audience actually gurgle with pleasure.


As for Judith’s cat-and-mouse scene with her daughter’s diplomat boyfriend (a glorious, baffled-senatorial turn by Michael Simkins) it is like watching two perfect gears mesh. And in her pretended renunciation scene with her husband (Simon Shepherd) and the alarmed Myra (Sara Stewart) it is remarkable to watch them simultaneously emote weepingly and shake with suppressed laughter at the panicking victim’s expense. So yes, Bath delivers this precious antique as the joy – and the Awful Warning – that it always should be.


box office to 6 Sept – touring to 27 Sept, Richmond & Brighton

rating  four  4 Meece Rating


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