HAY FEVER Duke of York’s Theatre, SW1

THE BLISS OF JUDITH BLISS:  FELICITY INDEED

Whenever I see this beloved play again I wish it was my first time. It should be seen in youth – when the dread of embarrassing parents getting emotional is at its height ; and again in middle-age, to empathize with Judith Bliss’ envy of the fresher generation.

For Hay Fever breathes a spirit of mischievous mockery, invincible youthful cynicism. This is the 1924 Noel Coward knocking off a deathless play in three days, playing with the idea of his own ideal tribe – charming, theatrically showoff bohemians – tormenting and confusing staid weekend guests with deliberately created dramas. Young Sorel and Simon (Alice Orr-Ewing and Edward Franklin) have each invited older admirers – she a stiff diplomat Richard, he the fortyish“self-conscious vampire” Myra (Sara Stewart). Their grumpy novelist father David (Simon Shepherd) has invited a flapper to “study the type” (Celeste Dodwell panics beautifully). But at the centre of the action is Judith Bliss: a diva who should never have retired from the stage and needs to live through scenes from the iffy melodramas of her heyday. Her admirer is a pop-eyed callow youth (Edward Killingback) As each family member contributes to Judith’s game, the visitors are in turns ignored, embarrassed, seductively flattered, manipulated, compromised, and driven to flight.

Lindsay Posner’s production for Theatre Royal Bath is set in period (the Howard Davies one a few years ago up the road gave the family more modern bohemian style, a messy studio-barn-conversion). Here Peter McKintosh’s s set is traditional, which permits an especially magical moment for Felicity Kendal in the second act finale, draped backwards over the banister in stage agony. Her Judith Bliss is a delight, even sharper and funnier than last year in Bath. It has sometimes been played as a Junoesque tragedy-queen, but is even funner as Kendal’s superannuated, shingled flapper, a menace who y has been overacting for years and now hurls herself opportunistically into any role the moment offers – vamp, matchmaker, self-sacrificing old mother, betrayed wife, repentant adulteress. Yet all the while she never quite drops the beady eye and sharp asides of a practised control-freak.

Every move Kendal makes is perfect, a masterclass in subtly acting the part of someone acting hammily. There’s a mimsy flailing of flirtatious fists when she asks the lunk Sandy about his boxing, a downward glance at “dreams trodden in the dust” and a cry of “I am growing old, and I must face it” coupled with a reassuring glance in a hand-mirror. Her seduction of the poor diplomat (Michael Simkins) is quite perfect, as is his gradual dissolution from senatorial dignity to clumsy flirtation and utter horror at Kendal’s fake emotional overkill. His demeanour the next morning , as the four visitors flee, has all the ratlike scuttling dissolution of a Cabinet Minister caught in a strip-club.
Coward intended only entertainment; but frankly, if from time to time in life you do get trapped in someone else’s “featherbed of false emotions”, phrases from the play are useful . I have, personally, used Sorel’s irritable “You are being Beautiful and Sad!” and David’s “Don’t be statuesque!” . It’s good to have it back onstage again.

box office 0844 8717623/ http://www.atgtickets.com to ! Aug

rating four    4 Meece Rating

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