One of the problems with remembering a much-loved play or production is that you remember where it finished up, which is often far more outrageously amusing or heartrendingly tragic than where it started and spent much of the evening. It’s some time since I saw Hay Fever and the glorious theatrical absurdities of Act 2 are what I remember, together with the elegantly appropriate twist on the traditional farce third act: the unravelling and return to sanity after the set-up of Act 1 and the mayhem of Act 2.
Sadly, in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production, Act 1 lacks sparkle and, in some cases, definition of character. It is also by a margin the longest of the acts at 45 minutes, the other two clocking in at a total of 60 minutes. In it we are introduced to the egregious Bliss family: retired actress Judith who has turned her life into a series of sentimental outbursts and passionate melodramas, her writer husband David, in solitary peace upstairs completing his latest romantic novel, and their two appallingly spoilt and wilful 20-ish children Simon and Sorel. Each has, without telling the others, invited a totally inappropriate guest for the weekend and the four guests arrive to find the family so self-obsessed that they barely merit a greeting.
Act 1 has its moments such as the polite and pointless conversation of two conventional souls, diplomatist Richard Greatham (Philip Bretherton) and hapless flapper Jackie Coryton (Emily Bowker), beached on the shores on Bohemia. Maggie Steed’s posturing and self-dramatising as Judith frequently amuses, but she doesn’t really hit her stride until Act 2. Then the house party plays games – or, rather, most of the time fails to because of the squabbling of the Blisses and the ineptitude of some of the guests. The cruelty beneath the Bohemian charm emerges and tellingly the younger Blisses at last find something to take seriously, arguing violently over rules and practices.
The best of the comedy lies in the juxtaposition of those who treat life as a drama in which to assume and discard roles and those who actually believe that what is said and done is to be taken seriously and acted upon. For a brief moment it seems that the inappropriate pairings are to be replaced by rather more likely ones, but in the end the only grouping that matters is the Bliss family versus their victims.
The whole thing is done with great style, Mike Britton’s design a delightful mix of the symbolic and naturalistic, a stylised flower stem topping the temporary proscenium arch, the room as expansive and elegant as you could wish, and the choice of Billy Mayerl’s music is perfect. Ian Brown’s production picks up great pace at the start of Act 2 and manages the stately dance of the finale well, but is not quite the joyous experience I anticipated. Maggie Steed has some fine set pieces without consistently convincing and the cast overall proves an effective ensemble without making great individual impact.