Robert Tanitch reviews Hay Fever at Richmond Theatre, Surrey
Noel Coward fell out of favour in the 1950’s with the arrival of the Angry Young Men and the kitchen sunk drama. Nowadays he is everywhere. He has never been more popular. Within the last 15 months I have seen revivals of Private Lives, The Vortex, Blithe Spirit, Relative Values, Ace of Clubs and Tonight at 8.30, a cycle of nine one-act plays.
Coward’s renaissance began in 1964 when The National Theatre staged a revival of Hay Fever, directed by Coward himself with a cast which he said could have played the Albanian telephone directory. The cast included Edith Evans, Derek Jacobi, Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith and Lyn Redgrave. There have been at least eight revivals in the West End alone since then.
Hay Fever, written in three days, has always been popular with professionals and amateurs, the latter unperturbed by the fact that it is, as Coward said, one of the most difficult plays to perform that he had ever encountered. First staged in 1925, it is dangerously thin; it has no plot and has to rely on the expert technique of the actors.
The Bliss family, which includes a mother, a father, a daughter and a son, are self-centred egoists and appallingly bad-mannered. Unbeknown to each other, all four have invited a guest for the weekend. The guests have a dreadful time. Judith Bliss, a retired actress, is liable to drift into melodramatic scenes from her stage successes at the slightest opportunity.
The comedy is in the intolerable rudeness of the hosts and the embarrassment of the visitors. The present touring production, which is expertly directed by Lindsay Posner and starring Felicity Kendal, is extremely enjoyable. Kendal, artificial to the point of lunacy, is very funny as Judith Bliss. Celeste Dodwell, as one of the unhappy guests, captures perfectly the looks and poise of a 1920’s flapper.