Hay Fever is one of those plays that do the rounds from time to time, while never quite being recognised as a major dramatic work. It’s easy to see why on both counts: it’s cleverly constructed with a sprinkling of wit but has no real plot and characters that are more like caricatures.
In his programme notes, director Nikolai Foster makes a bold argument that, far from being an inconsequential comedy, Noel Coward’s play possesses deep psychological insights - judging by Foster’s production, they’re very deep indeed. Foster moves away from drawing room drama by highlighting the farcical elements – every suitcase is a potential tripping hazard and, with so many characters given a strange gait, it seems like Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks has been relocated to the Berkshire countryside.
In a country house, the self-centred Bliss family, intent on playing out their own private games, ignore the needs of the four guests they have, independently, invited down for the weekend. Coward was inspired by a visit to the real-life actress Lorette Taylor, when he was similarly ignored. The resulting play must have been a spectacular act of revenge at the time, but I’m not convinced it stands up more than 80 years later. Part of the problem is that the clash between the mores of the bohemian set and those of the more strait-laced establishment no longer excite, but the dated references are distancing too - I wonder how many in the audience would appreciate the point about the Astors’ riches.
The actors do brilliantly to make the play seem relevant. Strictly speaking, Diana Rigg is, too old to play Judith Bliss, but she perfectly captures the spirit of a self-obsessed, ageing actress who is terrified of losing her sex appeal. After his triumph as David Tennant’s Hamlet understudy, Edward Bennett plays another vapid young man very well, though, personally, I’d like to see stretch himself some more. Guy Henry, whose long limbs make him adept at the more physical comedy, is another great actor largely wasted here. As the squabbling Bliss siblings Simon and Sorel, Sam Alexander and Laura Rogers are well matched, nicely bringing out petty rivalries.
But for all the company’s efforts – and Foster’s best intentions to uncover deeper significance – things never really gel. Hay Fever remains firmly grounded in the drawing room, where bright young things pop in and out of French windows (bizarrely doubling as a front door in Robert Jones’ set) and where it’s never long before the next cocktail.
- Maxwell Cooter