Review Round-up: Critics Feverish for Dench Bliss
Date: 21 April 2006
A slightly shaky start to this limited season of the Judi Dench-headed revival of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever – with a rescheduled press night (due to a clash with the RSC) and cancelled previews (because of the leading lady’s case of the flu) – did nothing to diminish the impact when it opened last night (20 April 2006) at the West End’s Theatre Royal Haymarket.
While not all the critics were impressed with some other aspects of Peter Hall’s production, none disputed the brilliance of its leading lady, who plays bohemian actress Judith Bliss, who has retreated to a rural haven where her writer husband David (Peter Bowles) and their precocious son and daughter all invite unsuspecting guests down for a madcap weekend of game-playing. And, with Dench at the top of her form, more than a few were critics deemed this Hay Fever a smash hit.
First performed in 1925, Noel Coward’s comedy of manners was inspired by the eccentric American actress Laurette Taylor, and her husband Hartley, and written by Coward in just three days. Dench and Bowles are joined in the cast by Kim Medcalf, Dan Stevens, Belinda Lang, William Chubb, Charles Edwards, Lin Blakley and Olivia Darnley. The production is presented by Bill Kenwright and continues until 5 August 2006.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com - None of a string of adjectives “would be sufficient to describe the glorious performance of Judi Dench as Judith Bliss…. Dame Judi takes the role by the scruff of the neck and shakes it into a sort of hectic vivacity, displaying the monstrosity of her ego with a speed and gravity, ensuring the play bristles with laughter…. No Judith Bliss before has been so ruthlessly hilarious – Dench’s dottiness and distraction are resonant and highly developed mannerisms, not signs of character weakness.” If for no other reason, Coveney declares, the production “must be seen for the brilliance and no-nonsense artistry of its leading lady, our delightful dame of the calceolarias.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Judi Dench is in her element, and clearly having a ball …. Dench gives a masterclass in high-definition comic acting, making Judith Bliss at once preposterous and curiously loveable.” Spencer was also won over by Hall’s “loving”, “near perfect” production of Coward’s “comic masterpiece”. He concluded: “This is a night of English high comedy at its absolute best – and a smash hit if I ever saw one.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “Dame Judi Dench may look a little ancient for the role – she is a cross between the late Queen Mother and Bette Davis – but she brings kitten touches to the production.” But, in his five-star rave, Letts praised all aspects of Hall’s “classic” production, “directed down to the inch”, and Coward’s comedy. “Hay Fever may be impossibly silly and dated, but its squeezebox crescendos of farce remain irresistible….” His recommendation was to firmly ignore medical wisdom: “Hay Fever? Ignore doctors’ advice. Catch it if you possibly can.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - While De Jongh notes that “Dame Judi, such a downright, truthful performer, is not ideally suited to the camp affectations and artificialities of the role”, he decided that she nevertheless “expertly conveys Judith’s gorgeous absurdity”. What’s more, overall, Coward’s 80-year-old comedy makes “a fresh, blissful impression” in Hall’s “spirited production”. “Hay Fever provides pure, delectable fun for escapists from life’s problems and pressures…. A hit? Yes, and a smashing one.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian - “It really is an evening for Dench-watchers; and what is fascinating is how she triumphs in a role that goes against the grain of her natural talent…. Dench may not be the kind of actory actor Coward envisaged. But that makes it all the funnier…. She never lets you forget that Judith’s real home is the dressing room and that her theatrical instinct is at war with her social role.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Dench’s Judith veers hilariously between striking attitudes and spouting prefabricated sentiments… and sudden rapid, pettish concessions to reality. It’s the seamless, brilliantly timed way in which she (Dench) slides from the semi-rehearsed to the grudgingly spontaneous that makes her performance so funny.” The revival, writes Taylor, is “a Hay Fever that is not to be sneezed at.”
- by Terri Paddock
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