Ignorance is bliss, they say – and in Noel Coward’s comedy Hay Fever, the Bliss family is most certainly ignorant. Subtitled ‘A Comedy of Bad Manners’, the play tells of their disastrous attempt at hosting four guests over the course of one weekend. But after a display of bohemian, self-centred and melodramatic behaviour, their guests are driven to escape the next morning – much to the continued obliviousness of the family.
The main point about this revival is that it is a superbly faithful rendering of the play Coward wrote. Hay Fever is often considered one of his classics, probably because it brings together all of his signature plot elements: the dysfunctional, upper class English family, the country house setting and the touches of high farce. All of these elements are brought vividly to life by Lindsay Posner’s direction – there are no modern or re-interpretative twists.
But Hay Fever is not the funniest of Coward’s plays. The comedy revolves almost exclusively around Judith Bliss, the faded stage actress yet ever-theatrical family matriarch, such that the humorous exchanges among the supporting cast are slightly thinner on the ground. Thus however much we might commend the accuracy of this version, it invariably fails to inject any of the spark or zest that is inherently absent.
Fortunate it is then that Felicity Kendal here takes on the grand dame as though the part was written for her to play. With an unparalleled vivacity, she wittily conveys the egocentricity of a woman eager to be the playwright, the director and the star of her own world. Simon Shepherd is her novelist husband, David, whose flirtatious guest Myra Arundel, a strong fit for Sara Stewart, is utterly the air of a ‘woman who uses sex as a shrimping net’ (as Judith resentfully remarks). The Bliss children, Simon and Sorel, are rather boisterously played by Edward Franklin and Alice Orr-Ewing, respectively.
The production might be classic in approach, but it won’t go down as a classic in practice. It’s still a memorable addition to Kendal’s glittering CV, which alone makes it worth a watch, but whenever she is offstage, the piece has all the spirit of an good but uninspired am-dram performance. I’m all for artistic fidelity, but with this cast, it might have paid to be a bit more daring.