Some plays are revived endlessly and yet, apart from filling theatres with their usual demographic, they seem to do nothing new with the text itself. You can understand why, as the target audience go home pleased as punch, but, as typified by the Royal Exchange\'s current production of Noel Coward\'s Hay Fever, converts will likely leave unsatisfied.
Unlike Coward\'s brilliantly brittle comedy Private Lives, Hay Fever is uneven in tone and contains several dull scenes. But this is certainly not the fault of the cast, who do their level best to give the play extra oomph when required in Greg Hersov\'s production.
The wonderful Belinda Lang gives a splendidly over the top performance as retired actress Judith Bliss. I say retired because this is where most of the humour comes from as this Margot Ledbetter-style character \'acts\' in everyday life, as if partaking in a melodrama of epic proportions. This means that whenever Lang is on stage, there are plenty of laughs to be had, however forced.
Judith\'s husband David (an underused Ben Keaton) plays second fiddle to his eccentric wife and their spoilt children, Sorel and Simon (Fiona Button and Chris New). Once the audience realises how selfish the family is, the scene is set for a dinner party from hell. Each member of the family have invited a guest and like a fizzier version of Who\'s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, the visitors are used for the Bliss family\'s general amusement, like a bored child\'s toy on Boxing Day.
As is expected from Coward, some of the dialogue is spot on and very funny, particularly his swipes at both critics and the theatricality of the family themselves. But as Lysette Anthony\'s vampish Myra Arundel notes, the house is a \"featherbed of false emotions\" making it very hard to engage throughout. Many of the scenes and situations simply repeat themselves, so much so that when another character says: \"This house, it gets on my nerves\", I did find myself nodding in agreement.
The cast thankfully lift Hay Fever during moments of boredom and frustration. Chris New, so wonderful in the Trafalgar Studios revival of Martin Sherman\'s Bent delivers again here, conveying far more to his character than just a life of bliss. Button often resorts to unconvincing shouting, but her scenes with Lang do display genuine chemistry. Sadly Keaton is miscast as he excels at physical comedy, yet feels restrained here due to his sidelined character, rather than his acting.
Hay Fever is not Coward\'s best play but the energetic performances cover the cracks momentarily, leaving you smiling but never laughing-out-loud. Ultimately, the barbed wit of Private Lives is more timeless than this overdone comedy of manners.