Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Theatre review: Hay Fever

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of a late preview - the penultimate one, I think.

Although unfortunately this felt more like the first or second preview than a show that's been in front of an audience for a week or so. The first Noël Coward play to be staged at this theatre since it was renamed in his honour, Hay Fever is a comedy of social awkwardness that's all about the carefully contrived artifice Coward is known for. The Blisses are an ostentatiously bohemian family, and this weekend they've got a full house: Each has invited a guest to stay without warning the others. Writer David Bliss (Kevin R McNally) has brought flapper Jackie (Amy Morton,) "retired" actress Judith (Lindsay Duncan) has invited Sandy (Sam Callis,) and their children Sorel and Simon (Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox) are putting up the older man and woman they have respective crushes on (Jeremy Northam and Olivia Colman.) But as the family start to trade partners over the course of the weekend, their guests aren't prepared for how much of the Blisses' lives are a performance.

There's an encouraging start as Bunny Christie's set is revealed, an airy country mansion in a state of disrepair, and the siblings' early bickering promises a witty, bitchy evening, but the more people who arrive on stage, the more sluggish the production gets. I'd been really looking forward to this largely for the sake of the female stars - Colman, Duncan and Waller-Bridge are all favourites of mine and they all give good performances. So do all the cast really but they never seem as if they've gelled as an ensemble. It's really only Fox and Waller-Bridge's relationship that I believed in. The second act is an improvement as the frantic parlour game that opens it creates some of the missing energy but it's always at risk of fading whenever the action slows down a bit. The final act is the shortest but also the messiest: A sudden lurch into slapstick is out of sorts with the rest of the play, and director Howard Davies hasn't pulled all its strands together - it's only at the end that the shape of this act becomes clear.

The clipped, exaggerated accents one associates with Coward were ditched in favour of something more naturalistic here and Jan thought this was the cause of the dialogue failing to spark. I'm not entirely in agreement as I fear the kind of cobwebby production we got for Blithe Spirit last year. But we did agree that there was certainly a major pacing issue - Jan described it as less Hay Fever, more Hay Slight Temperature. But I think he was just being clever to get name-checked in this review. I can't say any of the cast actually disappointed me, but the combination of them all just didn't work as well as I'd hoped.

Hay Fever by Noël Coward is booking until the 2nd of June at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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