For a very slight comedy, Noël Coward’s Hay Fever is notoriously hard to get right. First, the style required is at a premium these days. Second, though hastily written, the script is deceptively skilful and indeed reads (and should play) something like music.
On both counts, Howard Davies’ revival is a sad botched job, no better than the recent revivals by Nikolai Foster and Stephen Unwin at Chichester and the Rose, Kingston, respectively. It’s not very funny and everyone seems to be either the wrong age or the wrong class.
It should be so simple. Each member of the Bliss family has invited a guest for the weekend. The guests are subjected to private rituals, unintended insults, uncomfortable accommodation, party games and misrouted social signals.
As so often in Coward, the inner circle (ie, the Bliss family) humiliates and excludes the moral, the boring and the intrusive. The guests slink away after breakfast on Sunday with the Blisses still arguing with each other, now totally oblivious to their hosting responsibilities.
Davies and designer Bunny Christie make their first mistake in turning the hallway of a country cottage on the Thames into a large garage, or possibly a boat-house, with no French windows and a barn door which is unceremoniously slammed in the guests’ faces by the sullen, blockish maid of Jenny Galloway.
An audience has to be in love with Judith Bliss, but that’s not the sort of contract Lindsay Duncan deals in, nor does she mess with the idea of glamour or star status. Her Judith is nicely indifferent to everyone else, but otherwise comes across as just plain rude. And there’s nothing monstrous, or remarkable, about the character.
It’s as though they’ve all decided to play Noël Coward “straight” or at least in exactly the same way as you’d play Pinter, or even Chekhov, and it just doesn’t work like that. Olivia Colman, last seen on a stage (by me) as the maid in the Charles Dance/Jessica Lange Long Day’s Journey Into Night, looks fine as the vamp Myra Arundel, but she does nothing “with” the role, and it just falls flat.
On the other hand, Freddie Fox and Phoebe Waller-Bridge try a bit too hard to be intensely bohemian as the Bliss siblings, Simon and Sorel, and end up being tiresome and grotesque.
Only Jeremy Northam passes true muster as the slow-witted diplomat Richard Greatham, who can’t get the hang of charades and trades idle chatter with Amy Morgan’s cute but too common flapper as if confronted by top brass in the Foreign Office.
Maybe we just don’t know how to play this kind of old-fashioned froth any more. Coward, even in this 1925 early play, still seems terribly modern, and he writes so beautifully and economically. And he really is funny, bright and cruel; it all seems so leaden in the Noël Coward.