The Mill, Sonning – until 13 May 2023
I don’t always make it through the Oxfordshire lanes to the gorgeous, eccentric, water-wheeled Mill, but the thought of Issy van Randwyck as Judith Bliss lured me. Caught the show en route to the airport, so I started writing this on a Croatian long-distance bus.
Fitting maybe, as Noel Coward wrote it on the road and in a rush, inspired by amusement after visiting the hyper-theatrical family of Laurette Taylor on a shoestring trip to New York. He hadn’t yet made his name, had a revue brewing and was about to shock-the-bourgeoisie with The Vortex, a far darker picture of family and maternal excess. Hay Fever shows us the sunnier side, at least it’s sunny for the Bliss family themselves: parents, son and daughter each having separately and without consultation invited a guest for the weekend with literary or romantic intentions. It isn’t so sunny for the poor guests, of course, but the gleeful awfulness of the host family creates an irresistible joke on the self-absorbed theatrical community in which Coward had lived and worked since he was 11.
I wasn’t wrong to want to see Van Randwyck’s performance as Judith Bliss, the mother and unwillingly retired actress; it wholly suits her mobile, mischievous face, lovely musicality and personal understanding of diva-dom.
She wanders in from the garden, of which she knows nothing, speaking vaguely of caleolarias, and makes it clear from the first moments that she is desperately missing a career of plays like ‘Love’s Whirlwind’. Her vampish welcome of wet Sandy Tyrrel, she discovers, is going to be impeded by the guests of her impatient children Simon and Sorel, both fancying older and unsuitable guests: they’re William Pennington lounging like any teen and Emily Panes trying out her seductive powers. Judith – you can see her running through potential reactions of irritability – decides simply to coo beautifully “we must all be very very kind”. To which her waspish young snap “You’re being beautiful and sad”, in a way which makes it clear that they mean “…again!”
Coward’s is the neatest bit of character-setting in theatre, and as the play develops van Randwyck veers with nicely timed accuracy between Judith’s aspiration to control things and her enjoyment of a misty-eyed victimhood. All the twosomes work elegantly as the wrong pairs meet, clash and succumb to the wrong people; the first act ends gorgeously with Judith leading ‘Making Whoopee’, alongside family members on piano, sax and maraccas (Panes doubles as musical director, to excellent effect).
The charades scene and the entangled ‘engagements’ have all the spite which runs like a dark thread through all Coward’s best plays: his ability simultaneously to satirise and glamourise the frenzied 1920s smart set is a great part of his fascination. Joanna Brookes as Clara the housekeeper seemed at first to be overdoing it a bit, stumping in and out with trays, but the joke mellows beautifully and her own music-hall song, while clearing the breakfast, got a well deserved storm of applause. Actually, the physical and musical comedy all the way through is spot-on in Tam Williams’ production, as are the gorgeously stealable costumes.
Just a note: Laurette Taylor, by the way, wasn’t entirely happy about being a known model family for Hay Fever. She protested that none of them had been that rude. Glad Coward’s lot were, though. Irresistible, awful, immortal.
Box office millatsonning.com To 13th May. A treat. Ticket includes nice meal.