Royal Lyceum Theatre – until 1 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Solidly acted but only sporadically funny, the Lyceum and the Citizens Theatre co-production of Hay Fever is entirely serviceable but all too forgettable. Noel Coward’s 1925 comedy features the selfish, eccentric and theatrical Bliss family, who have each separately invited a guest for the weekend at their Thames-side Berkshire home. Game-playing (both organised and psychological) is the order of the day; suffice it to say that it is a house party no sane person would wish to attend.
At very nearly a century’s remove, the world of the play now seems unaccountably distant, even if the motivations of the characters do not. However, the all-too-familiar spectacle of spoilt rich people toying with others needs to be done with oodles of gumption to be palatable. While this production is all perfectly pleasant, there is little of that necessary pep and energy, while there is nothing else to mark this version out.
The beastly Blisses need to be far more engaging and outré than this to fully catch the audience’s imagination; here they just seem to be torturing their hapless guests for the fun of it. They are all well enough performed; they are just not very interesting.
Benny Baxter-Young’s father David and Charlie Archer as son Simon seem to be cut from the same cloth – self-obsessed and overly dramatic. Rosemary Boyle, as daughter Sorel, is slightly more complex, contrasting the character’s apparent wish to be more self-aware with frighteningly petulant outbursts of temper.
Ageing diva matriarch Judith should surely be the most expansive and over-the-top of the family, but Susan Wooldridge is oddly quiet and comparatively reserved at times. This gives the character more in the way of nuance, and suggests enough in the way of genuine disappointment to give her some reason for her actions. This would have been an interesting way to go, but it is never carried through, with director Dominic Hill’s traditional approach almost determinedly lightweight.
The main problem with the family’s game-playing is that it is never quite as funny as it should be, and it is left to their guests to provide the laughs. Hywel Simons is particularly good as diplomat Richard; there are a couple of moments in his exchanges with the equally good Katie Barnett (‘flapper’ Jackie Coryton) where awkward silences are punctuated with a comic timing so exquisite you want to shout with glee.
Pauline Knowles, meanwhile, finds in Myra Arundel a depth and emotional realism most of the others do not even seem to be looking for; Nathan Ives-Moiba’s infatuated Sandy has a puppyish, uncomprehending over-eagerness that is humorously touching.
Myra McFadyen, as Judith’s dresser-turned-maid Clara, has the comic chops to command the stage whenever she appears; her unexpected vocal feature, however good it is, does point up some of the problems. The third act that follows her Coward medley is given extra emphasis as a result, but it has never seemed an integral part of a play that would make as much dramatic sense – and have more impact – if it ended after the set-up of Act One and the nicely building chaos of Act Two.
Instead, what happens at the end here is something of a damp squib. At one point, it seems that some kind of homage is being paid to Stephen Daldry’s famous collapsing-house production of An Inspector Calls, with a comment about the smug inter-war certainties the Bliss family represent being destroyed.
It proves to be an accident – albeit one that gives the excellent Simons another chance to shine – and Tom Piper’s set, a combination of old-fashioned ‘well made play’ solidity and stagey skeletal frames, remains, much like the rest of the production, neither one thing nor the other.
As the run goes on, the under-prepared feel of the ending will settle down, but it is unlikely that any of this – perfectly decent though it surely is – will linger too long in the memory.