Hay Fever (WE, 2015)
May 20, 2015
Duke of Yorks, London
Some plays are constantly in a state of revival in London. Last year saw a poor production of David Mamet's brilliant comedy Speed-the-Plow, the third revival of that play in fifteen years. The recent storming West End triumph of A View from the Bridge was that great classic's fourth in twenty years. Pinter's Betrayal returns at regular intervals. Noel Coward's Hay Fever is in the same category - eminently revivable, easily castable, evergreen in its comedy, unrelenting in its popularity.
This is the third London revival of the Coward classic in less than ten years. Sadly, it is easily the weakest. Whether the show opened in the state in which it now finds itself, or has deteriorated over several months on tour, one can only speculate. But rarely have I been to a comedy so bereft of laughs or seen a classic play so devoid of interest. Those who saw Howard Davies' handsome and mature production at the theatre next door three years ago will find it hard to believe that this is the same play.
Judith Bliss is an actress whose career is behind her. Her children (who call her "darling", this being Coward) are either scrumptiously classy or intolerably pretentious depending on your point of view. Their father David, meanwhile, is a novelist who is head down in his latest opus. They invite some friends to come and stay in their country retreat for a weekend party. Thenceforth begins a comedy of manners: there are awkward pauses which nobody knows how to end; a game in which people have to enact a given adverb, and the odd elicit moment, all benefitting from a generous seasoning of self-regard.
This is not a play heavy with plot. This is a piece all about character, whose comedy comes from situation. Something is only funny if it seems accidental or incidental - a basic tenet of stage comedy that, alas, eluded London's press night performance which was full of hammy over-acting (particularly an extraordinarily over-zealous performance from the house maid) and mugging to the audience.
It's not all bad news, though. Felicity Kendal plays Judith Bliss, and what a natural fit she is for a role that has previously been played by such luminaries as Edith Evans, Judi Dench and Geraldine McEwan. For those who only know Kendal from The Good Life and are less familiar with her huge body of stage work, it is wonderful to see that her class and comic timing have if anything strengthened since that most iconic of TV roles forty years ago.
Alice Orr-Ewing and Edward Franklin as Judith's children give good value, although not coming close to eclipsing the memory of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox playing the same parts three years ago. And Michael Simkins, as always, is witty and natural and completely in style.
Elsewhere, though, the cast fall victim to a lazy production that pitches the play at a sitcom level, playing to the audience rather than each other and consequently rarely engaging with either. As with his recent deeply dull production of Harvey (and indeed the aforementioned Speed-the-Plow last year), director Lindsay Posner fails to bring class or style to plays that require both. Peter McKintosh's set looks cheaper than one expects in a large West End house and indeed a good deal smaller than these characters would be likely to tolerate. It also has quite the most unappealing front curtain I can remember seeing in a West End show.
Those disinclined to spend their money on a trip to the capital to see this dull incarnation of a classy Coward should take comfort from the thought that there will surely be another production of it in London and elsewhere before too long. Sadly, despite the brilliance of Felicity Kendal and the perennial charm of the play, this particular Hay Fever is not worth a sniff.