Hay Fever is light-hearted and fun, a situational comedy of manners, from one of the masters of the genre, Noel Coward.
The bohemian but unsophisticated Bliss family are all arty in their own way. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, tensions and overblown emotions always run high. On the weekend in question, they all invite a date to their Berkshire retreat for some flirtatious time.
With Hay Fever, an actor just can’t play it large enough. At least, this is clear from after the interval. However, the first act feels a little like its actors are bursting out of themselves. Also, they burst out of the washed out, restrained set of a converted barn, filled with furniture too glittery for it. Presumably this is the intention.
The acting is just too big for a mainly expository first act, particularly from the actors playing the young adult children, Sorel and Simon. There are superb moments too, though: Jeremy Northam, the diplomat, in his excruciating silence with the flapper on arrival, or Lindsay Duncan, the flamboyant actress, Judith, who stomping around in wellingtons, unable to distunguish asters from delphiniums.
If, like us, at the interval, you realise you haven’t laughed all that much, and you’re wondering whether any plot will evolve, don’t panic. Coward’s text itself is loosely plotted at first, but it neatens in acts 2 and 3. As poor manners disintegrate all together, and tensions among the egocentric Blisses ratchet, the laughs quickly clock up.
At this showing, one couple in the row in front tried to leave after the second act, when the excellently managed crisis was at its tipping point. A word of advice – don’t try that, you’ll miss out. Act 3 is bliss(sic)fully managed. The flamboyant abnormal family and their bemused visitors are so superbly juxtaposed that you’ll be left wondering on which side of the divide you would lie yourself.