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Hay Fever

by on 12 December 2021

Light as Soufflé

Hay Fever

 by Noël Coward

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham until 18th December

Review by Gill Martin

To party or not to party.  To gather or not to gather.  The festive dilemma hangs heavy as plum pudding in the run up to Christmas.  What better than a light-as-soufflé diversion?  A trip to a Covid compliant theatre where Noël Coward, master of comedy, is back on stage with Hay Fever at the Mary Wallace Theatre in Twickenham, less than a mile from his Teddington birthplace.

This Richmond Shakespeare Society’s production of the 1920s drama has drama aplenty: histrionics, chest thumping, arm flailing, sobbing and swooning, anguish and ecstasy.   Talk about playing to the gallery.

Director John Gilbert is known for his eye for style and period costume.  And he doesn’t disappoint with this stylish satire that teeters between farce and a comedy of manners.

The action is set in a country house on a summer weekend.   Four single souls, reluctant guests, find themselves out of their comfort zones, prey to misplaced desire and the vagaries of romance.

David and Judith Bliss are hateful hosts (Darren McIlroy and Dionne King), who play a cruel game of one-upmanship with their house guests.   They are callous, spiteful, insufferable…  and mesmeric to watch.

David is an author, his wife an actress of a certain age who dreams of reviving her career.   The drama she misses from her stage performances she makes up for in constructing drama in her life.

The four unfortunate strangers who find themselves in the Bliss’s home in Cookham, Berkshire, on the same weekend, cannot counter the contempt of their hosts.   They are intimidated, embarrassed and horrified in equal measure, involved in unsought for engagements, stolen kisses and clumsy sexual encounters.

Dionne King is superb in the role of the predatory and gushing Judith, solo singing A Room with a View to seduce unsuspecting guest Richard, (John Mortley) a meek bespectacled chap with a passing resemblance to an ageing Mr Bean.

Mr and Mrs Bliss have a daughter, Sorel (Anna Piggott) pretty but vacuous, and son, Simon (Joshua Shea), arty and self-absorbed.  They are spoiled brats.

They ensnare their victims with a mix of charm and bullying.   Our toes curl for poor Jackie (Fiona Poole) who is forced to dance during a party game.  ‘It’s a hateful game and I don’t want to play it ever again,’ she sobs.

The one guest who holds her own is Myra (Nicola Doble).  Jet black bobbed hair, as tall and angular as a Vogue model, she withstands the onslaught of David Bliss.  A confident performance.

At least this ghastly family is equally ghastly to each other.  But then they’ve had years of practice and take their behaviour as normal.

The household’s one and only normal member is the long-suffering Clara (Mandy Stenhouse) who has morphed from Judith Bliss’s theatrical dresser to housekeeper.   She’s a breath of fresh air in this toxic atmosphere, and played delightfully with understated humour.

Ninety six years old, this play is regularly revived by amateur and professional companies worldwide.   It bears its age lightly.  You could still encounter nightmare hosts whether in Cookham or Croydon, although the accents are probably less clipped.  But there must be a special place in hell for folks like the Bliss family.

Not content with his directorial duties John Gilbert is also the costume designer.  Cue a glittering wardrobe of taffeta and tiaras, flashy diamonds adorning throats and wrists, feathers and cloche hats, crushed velvet capes and flapper dresses, jewel colours and silky textures.   There’s even a convincing if moth-eaten fox fur complete with head.

And for the chaps there’s everything from smart DJs for evening fun and games to a natty striped blazer and cream flannels for sporty Sandy, played with boyish enthusiasm as a nice but dim fall guy by Jacob Taylor.

The set is stylised Art Deco, with a clever mix of period furnishings including a wind-up gramophone.

As you’d expect with any Noël Coward play the script is crisp, clever and witty.   And so full of laughter.  The first night audience in the cosy riverside Mary Wallace Theatre lapped up the very English humour in this fresh and funny treat.   

I’ll leave the last word to the Master, who saw Hay Fever first open at London’s Ambassador Theatre in June 1925.  In his autobiography Coward wrote: ‘The bulk of the notices referred to the play variously as being dull, amusing, thin, slight, tedious, witty and brittle.  Consequently it ran to excellent business for over a year.’

And still runs.

Gill Martin, December 2021

Photography by Pete Messum

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