Hay Fever - Savoy Theatre 1999

Wednesday, 16 June, 1999

It says in the program notes that Noel Coward got the idea for Hay Fever from a visit to New York when he attended the home of actress Laurette Taylor and her husband. Apparently they would play " acrimonious games owing to Laurette's abrupt disapproval of any guest who turned out to be self-conscious, nervous or unable to act an adverb or an historical personage with proper abandon".

This comedy concerns the strange Bliss family. Each member of the family invites a guest for the weekend to their country house in Cookham, without telling the others. However, the guests are treated badly by the family who humiliate, taunt and ignore them as part of some amusing game!

Hay Fever does not have much of a plot, but this does not matter as the emphasis is on the characters and how they behave. The characters are over the top, but this works wonderfully, particularly when it is exceptionally cast as this production is.

It is very hard to single out performers, as all are superb in their respective roles. However, one has to mention Geraldine McEwan who is phenomenally funny as 'Judith Bliss', the mother. Geraldine was last in the West End at the Royal Court theatre in "The Chairs" which she also took to Broadway. I last saw her in 'The Way of the World' at the National a couple of years ago and this performance is very similar, over the top and exaggerated, perfect for the part! Her facial expressions are a dream and she has this extraordinary voice. Her bodily movements are mesmerising, particularly when playing a drunk with her bottom stuck in the air. A very funny performance indeed! There is also a superb performance from Malcolm Sinclair as 'Richard Greatham', one of the guests. He plays the part of a proper English gentlemen, who is first of all amused by the outrageous conduct of the Bliss family, but later becomes horrified and plans his escape. These different emotions are expressed vividly through his mannerisms, which made his character particularly enchanting. Syvestra Le Touzel should also have a special mention for her outstanding performance as the spunky 'Myra Arundel'.

I have never seen Hay Fever before and so I have to judge the play by this production only. I liked it, I thought it was funny and intriguing, with a bunch of very interesting characters! However most of the popular press, who have seen many productions of the play, did not like it. They believe the play was directed wrongly, far from how Noel Coward wanted the play to be performed. NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Something terrible happened to a delectable Noel Coward comedy at it's First Night. It was transformed, trashed and travestied by director Declan Donnellan and his well-regarded actors." He finished his review by calling the play "a disaster". CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is a ludicrously perverse and often dismayingly unfunny production." JEREMY KINGSTON of THE TIMES says, " Coward purists will be outraged." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE was not as hard on this production as the rest but he was still luke-warm calling it "A dark look at light Coward."

Perhaps Coward purists should stay away, but I think the rest of you should go and see this terrific play with acting of the highest order.

(Darren Dalglish)

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