'Hay Fever' is set in a house in Cookham, Britain's second richest village if a 2011 rating by the Telegraph is to be believed. Lying to the west of London, it is situated on the doorstep of the Thames - an unlikely location, in some respects, for a play about a family of bohemians.
Reputedly written in a mere 3 days by Nöel Coward in 1924 and premiered the following year, this play retains considerable popularity among the theatre-going public, though I find it difficult to comprehend exactly why that should be. As others have remarked before me, the plot is about as thin as a razor-blade and even the original notices back in the 1920's were, apparently, hardly wildly enthusiastic. The lines are not nearly as witty as Coward's best, though the Saturday night audience I joined seemed to find it more amusing than I did.
The action takes place in the home of the Bliss family, supposedly all 'bohemians'. In one sense of the definition I suppose they are at least in terms of their professions. Father David is a writer, son Simon is an artist and mum, Judith, is a retired actress. But bohemians generally have a disregard for convention and rules, and I take that to include not dressing in dinner jackets and swanky gowns for dinner – which all members of the Bliss family readily do. In fact, they are less bohemian than madcap and whimsical, or even just plain odd. Daughter Sorel says simply that they are 'abnormal' which could fit the bill.
The four members of the family have each invited a guest down to their house for the weekend without informing the others. When the plans are revealed, there's irritation among the family especially as there seems to be a dearth of spare rooms. And the sullen housekeeper, Clara, is so put-out with the idea that, when they arrive, she slams the front door in their faces. But there's worse to come after dinner when the family embarrass their visitors by playing a silly word game, and then start playing at romance where each family member pairs-off with a different visitor than they invited, and it soon looks like both a divorce and a marriage might be on the horizon.
Bunny Christie's creative flair is utilised to the full once again and results in an impressively detailed set, but one which might not suit all tastes. Exposed iron girders form the framework, defining something more akin to an artist's studio than an elegant country home. I found it refreshingly and appropriately bohemian, but I suspect it will be a little downmarket for some.
Lindsay Duncan is convincingly theatrical, charming and elegant as actress Judith Bliss, and Jeremy Northam strikes the right tone as the bemused diplomat Richard Greatham. However, Olivia Colman seemed oddly ordinary and reticent as Myra Arundel, stripping the character of any resemblance of being a predatory older woman. And Freddie Fox might be into his early 20s but he looks so incredibly young here as Simon that one felt it would be more appropriate for him to be in his bedroom doing school homework or outdoors playing marbles, than trying his luck at romantic seduction.
I freely admit that I am not a great fan of this play, partly because it is about rather well-to-do people being rather silly and stupid. That would be fine if it was silly and funny, but it isn't. There are glimmers of humour here and there, but it is by no means a side-splitting romp. And, though Howard Davies's production is on-target in terms of the set, it is wide of the mark in some of the casting. In summary, a mixed bag.
And that reminds me … bags were being checked as I entered the theatre - an irritating and unnecessary procedure that is thankfully rare at theatres these days. However, the prevention of terrorism did not seem to be the primary motive for the intrusion. “Have you any alcohol?”, the doorman enquired as he shone his spotlight into the recesses of my battered satchel. Obviously the management are worried about patrons smuggling in their own supplies, and who can blame them given the ludicrously excessive prices in theatre bars? After all, we don't all live in Cookham!
"Howard Davies has a gift for revitalising Coward's comedies. Having put the sexuality back into Private Lives, he now visually redefines Hay Fever and pulls off the daring feat of suggesting that beneath the play's mockery of florid theatricality lies a vein of genuine emotion...fine revival."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"A solid cast but the staging does not always hit the right note."
Ian Shuttleworth for the Financial Times
" Masterly revival."
Quentin Letts for the Daily Mail
"Superbly funny, sharply observant staging."
Charles Spencer for the Daily Telegraph