Hay Fever (Duke of York's)

Lindsay Posner’s revival of Noël Coward’s ‘soufflé’ comedy transfers to the West End

Felicity Kendall (Judith Bliss) in Hay Fever
Felicity Kendal (Judith Bliss) in Hay Fever
© Nobby Clark
Noël Coward's 1924 comedy of a weekend house party by the river going horribly wrong over the coffee and charades was dismissed by critics of the day as thin, slight, witty and brittle.

Those characteristics are, of course, its virtues. It's a soufflé about nothing at all: except social embarrassment, rudeness to guests and turning your domestic life into a charade then a melodrama. Lindsay Posner's production – first seen at the Theatre Royal, Bath, last summer and recently on tour in Australia – makes a very good case for Judith Bliss, a retired monstre sacré of light comedy, making a comeback not in "Love's Whirlwind" but in Hay Fever itself.

This is because Felicity Kendal is so funny and frizzy as Judith, the bubble-brained châtelaine of Cookham who doesn't know her hyacinths from her calceolarias and has invited a numbskull admirer, Sandy Tyrell (Edward Killingback), to shore up her vanity while she bounces off the imprecations of her novelist husband, David, and their two adult children, Simon and Sorel.

Inconveniently, the others have all invited someone else down, too – a vamp, a flapper and a diplomatist – who gradually become enmeshed in a quadrille of misunderstanding, rivalry for the Japanese room, discomfort and exclusion, all playing their part in Judith's re-birth. The guests are cast as bit players in the after-dinner charades of behaving ludicrously "in the manner of the word."

The only trouble with Posner's production is that anxiety has translated into over-zealous noise. The charades are too rushed, and the scenes of abandonment and of small talk dwindling into silence are less awkward and funny than they should be. Simon Shepherd's David, more bluff than bohemian, shouts quite a lot, so does Alice Orr-Ewing's gawky Sorel, otherwise perfect as the first Sorel I've seen who really has become "far too tall."

'Kendal's Judith is a triumph of personality over talent'

Sara Stewart's middle-aged vamp Myra Arundel (who goes around "using sex as a shrimping net") enters bottom-first and spends the rest of the show trying to recover her dignity, while Michael Simkins's baffled diplomat virtually expires in a cold sweat at the breakfast table; he's had to spend the night in the boiler room, or "Little Hell."

This is after he's tapped the barometer and it's crashed to the floor. He stuffs the remnants inside his jacket then inside the piano. "Where's the barometer?" "In the piano," which is infinitely funnier than Coward's "On the piano." It's still raining at this point, though Posner makes less of the thunderclaps than either of the last two West End revivals starring Geraldine McEwan and Judi Dench.

At every turn, Kendal, however, transforms the event into an excuse for theatricality, even evoking the thrill of the first night with all the critics "leaning forward with glowing faces, receptive and exultant" (ha-ha) and the schadenfreude of the West End community when checking the reviews ("Mary Saunders has got another failure").

Oblivious to her own shortcomings – not least when eking out "a little French song" at the piano for the diplomat, or striking attitudes of absurd exaggeration – Kendal's Judith is a triumph of personality over talent and tremulous hope over dreary expectation. She exposes the selfishness and cruelty at the heart of Coward's unique comic style; it's the style itself, the music and the rhythm, that's slightly off.

Hay Fever is booking at the Duke of York's Theatre until 1 August 2015