Written in 1925, Hay Fever is Noel Coward’s rather trivial comedy about the Bliss family. Set in their home in the country, the four members of the family, Judith, David, Simon and Sorel invite four single acquaintances to stay. What follows is a night of mischief and mayhem which has been described as comparable to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
David and Judith are actually thoroughly unpleasant characters, whose love-hate relationship leaves them playing cold-heartedly with the feelings of their guests for their own selfish ends. They look down contemptuously on anyone they feel to be intellectually inferior, merely using them in an attempt to add a frisson to their own relationship. Their children, Sorel and Simon, are no better, having learnt from the masters they seem to be co-conspirators with their parents as their poor guests struggle to understand the machinations of a household where, on the one hand, they are neglected by the person who invited them, only to be then seduced by another member of the family.
It is surprising that the play has lasted so well and is now unquestionably part of the canon of amateur theatre. It has even had a number of west end revivals quite recently, particularly strange since Coward himself said of the play: “one of the most difficult plays to perform that I have encountered... it has no plot at all, and remarkably little action.” Ultimately it is clear however, Coward knew how to write; the dialogue is witty and humorous, the characters are astutely observed, creating wonderful moments of tension. There is clever delivery of lines where seemingly inoffensive remarks are spoken in a way that has the audience gasping at the underlying rudeness.
For this play to be a success it needs a strong cast of actors who know their lines and have mastered the art of comic timing. This is certainly true of the cast of Garden Suburb Theatre’s production Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Teresa Poland provides a very ‘winsome’ Judith Bliss. She prowls around the set creating the sense of a woman trapped in the country, desperately seeking entertainment to wile away the boredom. There is a certain predatory air to the way she charms all the men and poor old Richard Greatham, never stands a chance once she sets her sights on him, yet somehow as they end with a re-enactment of one of her great stage performances she manages to instil an air of vulnerability.
Toby Hampton is excellent as the spoilt brat Simon Bliss, whose art work is definitely nothing special, but who crows with delight at others misfortunes, as if he is somehow superior to them all. Both he and his sister’s behaviour is the antitheses of their mother: a woman who is fearful of growing old whilst her children are unwilling to grow up! A masterful performance there are moments in Abi Tallack-Cain’s performance of Sorel Bliss which genuinely make you think that she is going to turn over a new leaf, begin to take some responsibility for the way the family treat their guests, but this is short lived as she quickly returns to the joys of being part of her ‘abnormal’ family, her words!
Of the four family members it is Rusty Ashman, as David Bliss, the last to appear, who in some ways is the cruellest of them all. His wife is a prima donna, his children are spoilt, but he has no excuse for bringing hapless young women to visit as an experiment to discover ideas for his novel, nor does he really have any reason other than malicious pleasure to toy with Myra’s affections knowing full well he will never abandon the sanctuary of his dysfunctional family. Ashman’s performance brings out clearly the insidious nature of a rather self-centred, egotistical character and had me going home to look up exactly which roads did actually converge on Place de la Concord!
Toby Moore plays the slightly stuffy diplomat with an air of seedy expectation that turns to a wonderful sense of panic as he thinks that he might be forced to make his relationship with Judith a little more permanent. There is a wonderful sense of Greatham becoming steadily more confident as Judith ensnares him with her charm only to discover he is totally out of depth. Emily Elvin-Poole is Jackie Corrigan, the innocent young thing introduced into the mix by Judith’s husband, David in some bizarre experiment to see how she would react amongst her intellectual superiors. There are lovely moments when alongside her slightly irritating, whiney behaviour, get up and have a go at the adverbs game I wanted to shout, there is a genuine sense of hurt and anxiety that comes through clearly in an extremely sensitive performance. Myra Arundel, played by Gabi Maddocks, is described before she appears and manages to live up to that description, a predatory older woman with a sultry disposition happy to switch her affections from son to father. I totally believe her when she says archly she chose not to visit last time she was invited as David was in America. Sandy Tyrrel is perhaps the hardest part to play, he appears to have fewer lines to work with and is always overshadowed by the women of the household who use him as a pawn to prove which one is the most attractive. Stephen Meehan plays the part as a visitor who seems to have a vague air of being totally out of his depth and a genuine innocent when he tells the worldly wise Sorel that he thinks perhaps he might actually love her.
Mary Groom plays Clara, the housekeeper/former dresser as the down-to-earth character she needed to be in a household where there is no more room for egoists.
There are some lovely pieces of direction in this production. The opening dance, slightly marred by straining to work out the conversation underneath the loud music, was an amusing, light hearted opening to the play, and to lead on to an announcement about mobile phones. A quirky way to remind an audience of a message that we are so familiar with it is easy to ignore. The lovely stage picture at the end when the guests all crept across the front of the set unnoticed, while the family squabbled and the excellent timing as they stopped and listened to the car drive off once the front door slams. From start to finish this production had kept us engaged.
The set was simple, but functional, although the rather splendid folding screen with art deco effect panels which represented a window made a very attractive feature at the centre of the stage. Disappointing, however, was the choice of music, particularly in the interval, which was modern and far too loud. 1920s music is not difficult to source and in a production that kept so well to the style of Coward it was a shame a little more thought was not given to keeping other areas of the play in context. The costume too, some lovely outfits, Judith’s floaty housecoats, Myra’s flapper dress, Sorels’s stunning evening wear and the men in their formal dinner suits, so why did Simon appear in cargo pants throughout? Even the choice of fabrics; cotton, chiffon, wool, linen are the fabrics of the twenties and not difficult to source; a shame, there were far too many anachronistic costume elements. There was also a distinct lack of subtlety to the lighting – why did so many people stand in a red spotlight when they were inside the family home? And why oh why did the lipstick on Sandy’s cheek not match the lipstick on Sorel’s lips?
None of this issues however, took away from the overall enjoyment of the evening; the strength of the cast carried the play and not even a member of the audience walking straight across the set in the middle of the first half to exit the auditorium stopped them – truly professional. I was impressed!