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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HAY FEVER
at the Noel Coward

PARLOUR GAMES
By DAVID BENEDICT

  Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Dismissing his plays for being merely buoyant, bright and brittle, Noel Coward’s detractors argue that all one needs to perform them is good deportment, better breeding and perfect manners. For an exquisite demolition of that position, look no further than Howard Davies’ scintillating production of Hay Fever.

When it comes to Coward’s plotting, naysayers have a point. Hay Fever isn’t strong on developing action. It’s a prototype sitcom, the situation being that having “retired” from stardom and removed herself from the giddy metropolis to, good grief, the countryside, West End star Judith Bliss (Lindsay Duncan) and her fractious bohemian family are itching for entertainment. Comedy is provided by the fact that, unbeknownst to each other, they have each invited their current objects of desire down for the weekend. The vastly entertaining result is a round of “Get The Guests,” like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but with bigger laughs.

Everything starts to go horribly and hilariously wrong when Judith and the family insist upon playing parlour games, much to the unease of the deliciously ill-matched houseguests who, in every sense, don’t know the rules. “It’s so frightfully easy,” complains exasperated Judith, “and nobody can do it right.” This not only describes the comedy chaos threatening to engulf everyone, it delineates the problem facing any director: The ensemble playing required by such writing is extraordinarily hard to achieve but must look effortless.

Without resorting to clumsy directorial commentary, Davies recognises that Coward is cunningly eviscerating his characters even as he encourages you to laugh with them, an idea made palpable in the design. Bunny Christie jettisons the front curtain for a crumpled dustsheet that wittily rises to reveal a coltish, touchingly gauche Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Sorel draped in a sheet posing for her brother Simon (wonderfully enervated Freddie Fox), who is painting her. Instead of being in the sitting room of the sort of house beloved of traditional productions, this is a converted boathouse or stable block. It’s the kind of renovation that appeals to an arts 'n craft nest of vipers like the Bliss family, whom Coward paints as a bunch of spoiled yet deliciously attractive children and adults playing at the idea of living in the sticks. 

And so, like lambs to the slaughter, in come the guests. Sam Callis is ideally dim as boxer Sandy, and Jeremy Northam is marvelously fish-out-of-water as the stuffed-shirt diplomat who is the latest prized possession of Sorel. Judith, however, is seriously unimpressed with the idea of her 19-year-old daughter snagging stray men (a department Judith regards as her own), so she sets about seducing him. 

Duncan’s low, breathy disdain and self-dramatising faux innocence are lethally funny, yet what distinguishes her performance is what she does with a pause – especially when loaded with politely venomous intent towards her son’s girlfriend Myra (crisp Olivia Colman). And, indeed, her way with a prop. Her attempt at flower-arranging brings the house down, not least because Christie has so wittily dressed her in gardening hat and the world’s most improbable set of jodhpurs.

What unites this crack cast is, perhaps unexpectedly, breath control. Language this controlled makes almost Shakespearean demands of actors who must be able to run with the rhythm of long, perfectly crafted lines in which every syllable is precisely placed. Duncan, the high priestess of droll, won the Olivier and the Tony award for her Amanda in Davies’ production of Coward’s Private Lives, so her immaculate timing is no surprise. The great pleasure of this production, unlike Peter Hall’s woefully miscast 2006 revival, is that everyone else matches her. 

 


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