I laughed precisely once while watching the Bath Theatre Royal's production of Hay Fever that premiered in Bath last summer and has now arrived in the West End following an extensive tour (including three months Down Under). Either the laughter has been drained from it after all the time on the road, or everyone is simply trying too hard now. Nothing is less funny than actors gurning and straining for laughs. The one moment I did smile, though, was when Michael Simkins - a truly effortless actor - had a moment with a barometer hanging above the piano. But the comic temperature felt otherwise set to zero for me.
Emblematic of the production's over-earnest attempts at drawing laughter otherwise is that of the supposedly comic housekeeper, former dresser to Judith Bliss's star actress now continuing in domestic servitude, turns out to be something of a performer herself and enters the drawing room singing a song badly. Director Lindsay Posner has her do a silly twirly thing with her feet - not once, not twice, but three times; and no one laughs on any of those occasions.
There's nothing sadder than the sound of silence where there should be laughter. Coward, of course, was master at locating the pain and sadness beneath the laughter, and this early comedy of his - written in 1924 and first premiered in 1925 - has the sad undertow of the delusional ageing (and occasionally raging) actress, clinging to the theatricality she has left behind for a sedate country life, with her equally tiresomely self-obsessed family that comprises her novelist husband and two adult children.
It's a showy part that actresses of a certain age are always attracted to - over the years, I've variously seen Penelope Keith, the late Geraldine McEwan, Judi Dench and most recently Lindsay Duncan play it. Now it is the turn of Felicity Kendal, decked out in a curly blonde mop that she keeps tugging at like a schoolgirl (paging Baby June in Gypsy, anyone?), and adopting coquettish poses throughout.
Kendal is a national institution, of course, and this has long been her stock-in-trade; but over the last few years I've seen her evolve into a far more interesting actress - following in the footsteps again of Dench, for instance, she located the quiet pain and resignation of David Hare's Amy's View quite expertly.
Here, however, director Lindsay Posner allows her to retreat to a more comfortable repertoire of established mannerisms. A pity - this could have been an opportunity for a really interesting performance.
The production around her is mostly equally lifeless, apart from the aforementioned Simkins and Sara Stewart as another of the guests.
"Kendal’s lovely energy holds the evening together; but it is hard not to feel that the opportunity for a sharper, more dangerous production has been missed."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"This play, above nearly all others, needs to sparkle and fizz continually and by and large Lindsay Posner’s well-drilled production, with its pleasingly-blended ensemble, does just this."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press