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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HAY FEVER
at Duke of York's

BADLY TREATED GUESTS
By JOHN NATHAN

  Alice Orr-Ewing, Sara Stewart and Edward Franklin/ Ph: Nobby Clark

It is hard to imagine the kind of party to which Noel Coward would be invited and then ignored. But it is largely thanks to the bad manners of his host, American silent movie star Laurette Taylor, that the 24-year-old Coward hit upon the idea of a comedy in which a family treats their guests disgracefully.

On the face of it the play's main ingredients – people having affairs in a country house – are pure cliché. In fact, so familiar are they, the deliberately clichéd play within Michael Frayn's brilliant farce Noises Off is about just that – infidelity in a country house. What elevates this comedy above the rest, however, is that Coward's witty script doesn't rely on affairs being hidden from view to generate laughs, but on affairs being publicly confessed. Take the moment when Felicity Kendal's flamboyant Judith Bliss is pecked on the neck by the otherwise impeccably behaved diplomat Richard Greatham (Michael Simkins). Instead of keeping the indiscretion quiet, as any sane person would, Bliss immediately declares that her husband David (Simon Shepherd) must be told, even though it will, she says while dripping with sorrow at the prospect, probably destroy him personally and his career as a (rather bad) novelist. “Tell him what?” asks the dumfounded Greatham.

Greatham is one of four appallingly treated guests who have each been invited down by a member of the Bliss family for what today might be called a dirty weekend, but in Coward's world of beautifully dressed, well spoken and relentlessly articulate sophisticates – even the idiot boxer here is from a public school and speaks in grammatically perfect sentences – feels something altogether less seedy.

Lindsay Posner directs with pace and subtle panache and does everyone watching and acting a favour by pairing the evening down to a very breezy two hours. It also helps that Kendal is in the finest possible form. The actress – now herself of a certain age – beautifully captures the attention-seeking techniques of an aging professional performer who turns every moment into a drama in which she takes the central role. Sara Stewart as the only guest with the gumption to stand up to the rudeness is excellent, especially in the scene where she gives her hosts a much-needed telling off. But it is all water off a duck's back to the complacent Judith, who yearns to ditch life in her comfortable wood-paneled house (nicely deigned by Peter McKintosh) and return to the theatre. So you could say that Kendal's performance is domestic Bliss.

 


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