The Mill, Sonning – until 13 May 2023
Allegedly inspired by Noel Coward’s weekend visits to the country home of legendary American actress Laurette Taylor, where any unwillingness or inability to participate in increasingly bizarre parlour games resulted in relegation to social pariah, this classic is a comedy of manners… bad manners.
Hay Fever’s humour derives primarily from its characters. Coward’s text doesn’t have the epigrammatic sparkle of, say, his Private Lives and Present Laughter, nor the dramatic intrigue of Design For Living or The Vortex. Neither does it have the macabre originality of Blithe Spirit. Yet it remains one of the most frequently produced of all the Master’s plays, partly I suspect because it features a ham-bone humdinger of a female lead role in Judith Bliss, the histrionic, hilariously self-obsessed retired actress who treats her soignée rural life like it’s just one more of act of high drama for her to sashay theatrically through. In the West End alone, she has been embodied by such luminaries as Judi Dench, Felicity Kendal, Maria Aitken, Lindsay Duncan and the late Geraldine McEwan.
It’s a cracking star role and Tam Williams’ new staging fields multi Olivier Award nominee Issy Van Randwyck, who gives us a captivating Judith equal parts honey and steel, utterly convinced of her own allure but blithely unaware of how ridiculous she’s often being; she’s the kind of woman who has camp running through her veins. She could afford to ramp up the ruthlessness a notch but this is generally a very funny, satisfying performance.
Williams’ solid production lacks finesse at times but mostly plays to the strengths of the cast, which are considerable. The eccentric, artsy Bliss family – father David is a novelist and the grown-up children Sorrel and Simon are gleefully highly strung – who have all invited weekend guests unbeknownst to each other thereby setting what plot there is in motion, are also extremely musical in this reading. Cue a delightful segue from act one to two which sees the entire family donning costumes and instruments to entertain their not necessarily welcome guests. Williams gives his leading lady more opportunities to sing than most of her predecessors in the role, and she seizes them with relish.
Otherwise, this is a fairly straightforward reading of the play, entertaining but with nothing particularly radical and illuminating about it. If you’re after the theatrical equivalent to comfort food, here it is. A bit more edge wouldn’t go amiss however. For Hay Fever to truly fly one has to understand just how outrageous these people are being. It’s maybe a reflection of the modern day obsession with social media, reality television etc whereby by bad behaviour is all too often presented as popular entertainment. By comparison, the shenanigans of these theatrical types feels less spicy and naughty than once it did.
Furthermore, there is a tendency throughout to sacrifice the precision and pace of high comedy playing to sheer volume. There is very little variation in pace, and enjoyable though it remains, the ultimate euphoria of proper comedy lift-off is seldom fully achieved.
The central quartet fully convince as a family. Van Randwyck’s Judith and Nick Waring’s nicely bumbling yet cranky David seem to share a tacit understanding of the absurdity of much of their behaviour and together make total sense of the way they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the domestic playacting much to the consternation of the assembled guests. There is an intriguing suggestion that daughter Sorrel (Emily Panes) is the most mature of the bunch and that she truly sees how ridiculous they are all being. As her brother, hair permanently a-mess and daubs of paint randomly all over him, William Pennington makes a beguiling man-child.
The idea that Clara the maid, who was formerly Judith’s West End dresser, is every bit as theatrical as her employers, is not particularly new, but I’ve never seen it taken to the extremes that Williams allows Joanna Brookes to get away with here. It’s very broad comedy shtick but it really works and Ms Brookes comes pretty close to running off with the show. I also really liked Aretha Ayeh’s vampish Myra, who a clearly threatened Judith cattily describes as being the sort of woman who “goes about using sex as a sort of shrimping net”. Ayeh gives her a sloe-eyed sophistication, but it’s hilarious when her bemused facade cracks, and she has a full on temper tantrum, while berating the mystified Bliss tribe. Also wonderful is Beth Lilly as the most socially awkward of all the guests, brought down from London by David so that he can study her for a character study in his latest book, although she is not aware of this. Lilly beautifully judges this poor young woman’s constant battle between angsty hysteria and complete mortification.
Seeing Hay Fever at the lovely Mill at Sonning, not far from the Thames-side village Cookham, where Coward’s play is actually set, feels almost like immersive theatre. It also feels a little like stepping back in time to a gentler era. Some people may find it a little staid, but it’s not hard to see why it proves so perennially popular.