"We're a beastly family, and I hate us." Meet the Blisses: recently retired OTT actress, gruff and eccentric novelist husband, irritating and over-educated teenage daughter and son. Their home is "a featherbed of false emotions", says one of the hapless weekend guests who each arrive expecting a romantic liaison with a Bliss.
In the event, there's an all-change act two after dinner when they each get a second Bliss, albeit briefly. And breakfast the next day sees the shattered guests sneaking back to London while the family bicker happily among themselves.
That's about it. Hay Fever is short on incident and character development. The snapshot of this appalling family and a collection of witty comments are what make for such an entertaining evening, but as a play it's little more than an outline for a sitcom series. Dominic Dromgoole chooses his plays pretty carefully, though, and his direction makes this Oxford Stage Company production quite a good night out.
Why Bliss? Because ignorance is bliss, and these people are good at ignoring everyone else. They're rude, self-obsessed and conceited. So the play provides a terrific part for the main characters, especially the self-worshipping mother Judith Bliss - and Estelle Kohler seizes the opportunity with gusto. Her husband David flits in and out of the action - not least because he's beavering away to finish a novel in an upstairs room for much of the time - but this too is a classy performance halfway between engaging and obnoxious from Jonathan Newth.
The four guests are cardboard targets. But the actors all deliver exactly the right combination of cartoon and credibility - particularly Christopher Luscombe as starchy civil servant Richard Greatham and Claire Vousden who does the icy divorcee Myra Arundel as Margot from The Good Life with more poise and better dress sense. Brownie points, too, for William Buckhurst who plays boxing hunk Sandy Tyrell as Tim-Nice-But-Dim with added muscles: Noel Coward was sometimes too clever by half to come up with plausible thickos.
The weakest points in the play and the production are the younger Blisses. They get the tricky job of starting things off, defining the style of the household (and the play) for the audience; and it's hard work without witty epigrams or off-stage action to comment on. Still, the pacing could have been better; and it's all a bit too static at times.
With more people arriving on stage, things perk up and the two look more like spoiled rich kids. William Rycroft is more at home as the son Simon Bliss, and his explosions of passionate activity give real depth to his shallowness. Maybe Leah Muller is a touch laid-back for Sorrel Bliss's mercurial changes of mood.
Still, this Hay Fever is a bright, witty, show with a lot of laughs. It also has a terrific set by Jonathan Fensom. And there's a commendably light touch to Dromgoole's production that never descends to whimsicality.
- Dennis Jarrett (reviewed at the Bristol Old Vic)