Press night for Hay Fever on a summer’s eve: the red carpet rolled out in front of the Duke of York theatre; expectant photographers at the ready.
I spot a few familiar faces: Jim Carter (the Butler Carson from Downton Abbey), Maurine Lipman, Lesley Joseph from Birds of a feather.
Seated in front of me was Alessandro Nivola the actor and producer who starred in American Hustle. But of course the woman we are all waiting for is Felicity Kendal – billed as the star of the show – and the luminous of stars she was.
Transferred from the Theatre Royal Bath to the Duke of York, Nöel Coward wrote the play in one weekend in his mother’s garden, originally calling it Oranges and Lemons.
The English comedy play centres on one manic weekend in a country house in Cookham belonging to the Bliss family, though we suspect every weekend is rather similarly chaotic once we meet the four melodramatic characters in the family. There is the semi-retired actress Judith Bliss (played by Kendal), her writer husband David Bliss (Simon Shepherd) and their beautiful, but intense children Sorel Bliss (Alice Orr-Ewing) and Simon Bliss (Edward Franklin).
The Bliss’s play host to an array of ‘guests’ – though that’s just it – they play, they act, teasing them, caring nothing for manners or etiquette of making their ‘guests’ feel right at home. Being around the bohemian Bliss family is like having the symptoms of hay fever: it’s afflicting, reactive, though for the audience it’s a pleasure, as we are at just the right distance away…
There are some superb moments of acting such as from the half-witted Jackie Coryton (played by Celeste Dodwell) who has perfected the comic mannerisms of even the way she goes up the stairs and down again, to the way she glides as lightly as her brain across the stage. There are also some wonderful visuals including the 1920s costume flapper dresses.
Coward once remarked ‘Hay Fever is far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform that I have ever encountered’ and whilst director Lindsay Posner has been successful, it is still easy to see that as a play Hay Fever lacks any real depth. Take Kendal out of the equation and would we be quite so interested? Still, we are happy to watch Judith Bliss be flippant and frivolous at the flouting of social norms as she flaps her flapper dress…
Until August 1st 2015, Duke of York Theatre
by Heather Wells