Hay Fever opens as a comedy of romantic intrigue. The perpetually bickering Bliss family – husband, wife, son and daughter – have each, unknown to each other, invited an admiring guest of the opposite sex for the weekend with the intention of a little light amour.
This seemingly Shakespearean set up – with the Bliss house in Cookham standing in for the forest of Arden or Prospero’s island – is soon subverted. None one of the four guests end up with their inviters; on the contrary, pair up with another family member. Or rather, they end up with someone else as part of a Blissful game, for romance is simply a parlour amusement for the bad-mannered hosts. But this family that plays together stays together, and we end on a note of domestic more-or-less harmony as, the appalled guests having made a mass escape, paterfamilias David reads out his newly-finished book to his wife, son and daughter.
Credit must be given to director Ian Forrest and assistant director Mary Papadima for giving us a pacy, unsentimental, feather-light and scalpel-sharp production of a comedy now well over eighty years old. The play’s pre-war upper-middle-class milieu is convincingly created, with Coward’s sophisticatedly witty dialogue sitting easily in the actors’ mouths.
Ben Ingles’ heartily nice-but-dim Sandy Tyrell and Fiona Drummond’s Jackie Coryton - all blushes, fingers and thumbs – are comically incomprehending of the situation they have got themselves into. The more sophisticated visitors - Jack Power’s sincere man of the world Richard Greatham and Polly Lister’s dazzlingly sharp Myra Arundel – have the wit to play along, but are ultimately too nice to.
Heather Phoenix delivers a magnificently harassed turn as Clara, the Bliss maid, and keeps the mood playful with a wonderfully comic turn whilst literally setting the scene for the third act to begin. The Bliss siblings Simon and Sorel (Benjamin Askew and Olivia Mace) are an amusing combination of adult wit and childish taking what they want, and Peter MacQueen’s David nicely shows the selfishness and immaturity of the kind of creative who always knows his own mind.
But the stage belongs, literally and metaphorically, to Kate Layden as retired West End star Judith Bliss. She gives us a hilarious masterclass in bad behaviour and a character revitalised by constant self-administered doses of scenery-chewing melodrama (manufactured, if necessary).
Theatre-By-The-Lake deliver a fizzing production of a Coward's sparkling play, which never goes flat in their capable hands.