Anyone expecting a conventional lighter-than-light Coward comedy will be in for a shock with this new production of Hay Fever. Director Declan Donnellan has mined the material to expose a much darker, more sinister tale. The result? A rather uneasy mish-mash of Noel Coward meets Tennessee Williams, where upper-class eccentricities verge on full-scale dysfunctionality.
The Bliss family are an artistic bunch - a famous novelist father (Peter Blythe), acclaimed actress mother (Geraldine McEwan), and two horribly spoilt though precocious grown children (Stephen Mangan and Monica Dolan) - who, despite their verbal agility, don t communicate very well. Each has invited a weekend guest, and potential lover, to the ramshackle family home without warning the others. As luggage piles up, the family hackles rise and a hideous routine is set in motion, with the hapless guests used as pawns in the game of rudeness and recrimination.
McEwan plays with aplomb the role of mum Judith around whom the rest of the characters revolve, like bit parts in one of the prima donna s old stage melodramas, “Love s Whirlwind”. Her trademark screeches, flirtatious eyelid flutters and coquettish drops of the shoulder may occasionally go catapulting over the top, but she succeeds in painting an entertaining picture of a woman only too willing to forget that both her youth and her fame has passed their peak.
The rest of the family, under Donnellan s direction, veer a bit too wildly towards the psychopathic to maintain the mirth. Blythe s heavy hand and Mangan s constant kissing and caressing of his mother and sister - when he s not screaming bloody murder at them, that is - are particularly unsettling.
It s the guests who, as more traditional Coward cut-outs, score highest in the comic stakes. Each finds themselves invited by one Bliss then seduced and humiliated by another after being subjected to a baffling parlour game involving adverbs. It s all too much for Cathryn Bradshaw s simple flapper, Scott Handy s fresh-faced boxer and Sylvestra Le Touzel s sleek aristo. Malcolm Sinclair is particularly amusing as the tweed-clad diplomat who struggles to keep his lip stiff and his reserve intact in the face of such bizarre behaviour.
But even he can t weather Donnellan s denouement untrammeled. As the guests escape beneath the Blisses oblivious noses, things turn positively surreal, finishing off with a full-cast rendition of “Tea for Two”.
If it all sounds too dreadful, don t worry. There are still plenty of laughs in this Hay Fever, but there s quite a bit of unnecessary squirming as well. It s not for die-hard Coward fans.