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Review Round-up: Critics catch Coward's Fever

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Noel Coward’s ever-popular 1924 play Hay Fever is back in the West End and is the first production to be performed at the theatre now named in the playwright’s honour.

The outrageous Bliss family consists of retired actress Judith, her novelist husband David and their two children Simon and Sorel. Each family member has invited a guest for a rainy weekend at their bohemian home for a party that goes awry. Instead of lovely chats and flirtations, the guests fall victim to the family’s bickering and dramatic chaos.

Director Howard Davies reunites with Lindsay Duncan, who won an Olivier Award in his production of Coward’s Private Lives ten years ago. Duncan plays Judith Bliss, and is joined in the cast by Kevin McNally, Jeremy Northam, Olivia Colman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Amy Morgan, Sam Callis and Freddie Fox.

Michael Coveney

“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 … 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 … Olivia Colman 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.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“The playwright described Hay Fever (1925) as ‘one of the most difficult plays to perform that I have encountered... it has no plot at all, and remarkably little action.’ Yet in Howard Davies’ superbly funny, sharply observant staging, with Lindsay Duncan leading a cast that brings every role to detailed life, the piece proves irresistible. This is a play that transforms triviality into comic perfection … Second-rate revivals of Coward often prove fusty and laborious. But … Howard Davies blows the dust off the piece and makes the play seem fresh and startling as well as amusing. Though firmly set in period, it never feels dated … Duncan combines predatory glamour with brilliant comedy as Judith Bliss … and never stops performing even when she half convinces herself that she is being sincere. The flirty breathiness with which she lures Jeremy Northam’s stiff and stuffy diplomat into her coils is genuinely sexy as well as funny, while Northam’s panicky anxiety is comic acting of a very high order indeed. Freddie Fox offers a tremendous turn as the spoilt brat of an artist, often cackling with insolent delight at the misfortunes of others, while Phoebe Waller-Bridge proves unexpectedly touching as his gauche and hearty sister. Look out too for a deeply poignant performance from Amy Morgan as a cruelly humiliated cockney flapper who brings a sudden glimpse of real hurt into this irresistibly heartless comedy.”

Michael Billington

Howard Davies has a gift for revitalising Coward's comedies … he now visually redefines Hay Fever and pulls off the daring feat of suggesting that beneath the play's mockery of florid theatricality lies a vein of genuine emotion … The first shock is Bunny Christie's set: in place of the usual rural Berkshire paradise, we are confronted by a converted barn stuffed with paintings and books testifying to the Bliss family's bohemian pretensions. But Davies' approach to the text is even more radical … You see this most clearly in Lindsay Duncan's sublime Judith Bliss. Duncan plays her not just as a rusticating West End star, but as a woman who sports with her visitors both to annoy her husband and confirm that age has not diminished her sexual allure … Kevin R McNally plays Judith's other half as a testy figure who at one point looks as if he might stab his spouse with a butter-knife … there is a peach of a performance from Jeremy Northam as the buttoned-up diplomat quivering with shy lust: his initial, embarrassed encounter with Amy Morgan's taciturn flapper also proves that Coward, like Pinter, knew the comic value of extended pauses.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

“Behold Lindsay Duncan in full sail as Noel Coward’s nightmarish Judith Bliss: Her hair is corkscrewed, her feet are pointed as she crosses the stage, each step sinking with tragedy, hand to brow, a silk over-garment trailing … Hay Fever is given a masterly revival by director Howard Davies and his cast … Bunny Christie’s set creates a grand, untidy, high-ceilinged Twenties house. Part-completed sketches hang from the walls. The furniture owes little to comfort … Coward, a butterfly who had to restrain himself, understood the two frontiers of conformity. He enjoys the unease of the squares but also shows the cruelty of the Blisses. Hay Fever is a caution against bohemians and bourgeoisie becoming overly familiar with one another. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Sorel is a real honker: Sex-mad, intellectual. Freddie Fox, as Simon, is so camp that it is a wonder he would ever try to kiss a girl – oh Noel! Kevin McNally’s David could do with more of a period haircut. Jeremy Northam does a super turn as the maddeningly noncommittal diplomat, Richard. Sam Callis is well cast as the hunk Sandy. The ticket prices are not to be sneezed at, but this is one Fever worth catching.”

Libby Purves
The Times

Howard Davies’ direction is tight, hilarious and rich in laughs, including physical comedy (magnificent door- slamming work from Jenny Galloway’s surly maid). Freddie Fox, floppy-blond, romps around with insouciant grace, Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Sorel gawks and flounces. Bunny Christie’s set is not the usual country-house bohemian chic, but downright disorderly: behind a dust-sheet curtain the furniture is conventional enough but the house is a sort of barn-conversion set on girders, with blank picture-frames, an open staircase and crooked antlers signifying joke-baronial … At the apex of the play is Lindsay Duncan as the dramaholic mother, alternating between Judith’s natural bored self and a series of tremulously overacted heroines … Waller-Bridge gives Sorel a St Trinian’s quality … Other seductions, notably Kevin McNally’s David with Olivia Colman’s self- contained Myra, feel intriguingly like advance parodies of Coward’s later, more sincere love scenes … The charade scene caused the most prolonged, helpless gurgling, but almost best is the breakfast coda: as the guests tiptoe out into the rain, the family bickering is so comfortably accustomed that it’s almost cosy. There’s truth in that.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

Howard Davies … serves up a production of this 1925 comedy of manners that's funny yet also unorthodox and unsettling … Lindsay Duncan is elegant and incisive as Judith. Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings more than a touch of Miranda Hart to Sorel, a character who strives for sophistication yet repeatedly stumbles into gawky mistakes. Freddie Fox is suitably pettish as the artistic Simon, and the relationship between the competitive siblings feels smartly observed … Jeremy Northam does a nice job of playing against type as a dry diplomat who finds himself completely under Judith's spell … Less successful is the choice of Olivia Colman as fading seductress Myra; her abundant skills are underused. Kevin McNally's David is also curious: it's an assured turn, but one that appears as if it belongs in a different play. Hay Fever is usually treated as a plotless mix of sophisticated small talk and cleverly embroidered cliché. Here it seems a celebration of abnormality and at the same time a disquieting study of both the pleasures and the pains of not being able to restrain oneself … The production is poised rather than anarchic. Even if the chemistry isn't yet fizzing, this should develop. And amid the many moments when this interpretation is winsomely amusing, it also proves oddly affecting.”

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

Lindsay Duncan normally has poise and mystique in abundance, and so takes equal delight in both grossly parodying them in a husky Dietrich baritone and throwing them to the four winds in the vigorous family exchanges of the first act … Judith’s novelist husband is a rumbling Kevin McNally; her precocious teenage offspring are Freddie (son of Edward) Fox and the ever-wonderful Phoebe Waller-Bridge … Jeremy Northam is cast against type as a sober diplomat – greying, slicked-back hair, heavy round spectacles – bedazzled by Judith. Olivia Colman at first also seems in unfamiliar territory as a metropolitan vamp, until we see her dissolve in bewilderment at the family’s acting-up. Elsewhere, Davies’ directorial touch is less sure. The Blisses live in the prosperous Berkshire village of Cookham; Bunny Christie’s set may be intended to be a semi-converted boathouse but looks more like a former workshop in one of the less swish parts of Covent Garden. Not even a family as unconventional as the Blisses would live in this place in the 1920s. And giving the ingénue character of Jackie Coryton a more common accent may explain her social insecurity, but it cuts dead against her actual lines. Matters can also grow a little shouty even for Judith Bliss & Co, revealing that Coward’s fun is at root just as artificial as that of his characters.”

- McKenzie Kramer


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