Hay Fever
Friday, 05 September 2014

Hay Fever

Felicity Kendal is bliss in this timeless Coward classic, but Margo might sniff at the table manners

Written by Robert Gore-Langton
Theatre Rob-Aug29-00-176Felicity Kendal worshippers will not be disappointed. In Hay Fever at Bath’s Theatre Royal she comes on, to a sigh of audience affection, wearing galoshes and gardening hat, looking as if Barbara in The Good Life had at last come into some money. The only thing missing here is the late lamented Richard Briers, trailing behind with a bag of goat feed.

Kendal is starring in Noël Coward’s 1924 cut-glass comedy about a bunch of weekend guests who come a cropper at the Cookham home of a frightfully arty and bohemian family. Kendal plays the retired and very actressy actress Judith Bliss, mother of two. Her hubbie – Simon Shepherd with a beard – is writing a novel; her brat of a son paints terrible nudes and squabbles with his teenage sister (Alice Orr-Ewing), who’s trying hard to be sophisticated.

The Blisses live on their own spoilt little planet and the guests are flies to their web – subjected to cruel parlour games and used for casual flings. Ms Kendal is not natural casting as Judith Bliss – not scary enough – but she puffs on ciggies like a trooper and drapes her body on the banisters in a TV sitcom style when emotionally devastated – ie, mildly upset.

The problem with the evening is that it’s rather laid on with a trowel and Coward’s dazzling script gets undervalued in the playing. The best lines hit the deck with a dull thud. Maggie Smith, as a young actress playing the vampy guest Myra Arundel, famously brought the house down with her breakfast exclamation: ‘This haddock is disgusting’. In Sara Stewart’s delivery, the line goes for nothing. The same with Judith’s suggestive question, ‘Can you punt?’ when she’s flirting on the sofa. It entirely misses the note of sexual hope that makes it funny.

While the farcical momentum is kept up, attention to detail is lax. The wood-panelled set looks lovely, but it doesn’t reflect the family’s bohemian pretensions, and I began to wonder if actors these days can do the ‘posh’ this sort of high comedy requires. Michael Simkins is a delightful performer who’s here playing a stuffy diplomat with well-bred small talk. So why does he use his cutlery as if he were in a transport caff?

The writing is too good not to get some laughs. Kendal is a treat and very much at home with the croaky, batty side of her character, and Lindsay Posner’s direction is best on the physical stuff – the business of the crashing barometer made me hoot. This touring version has its hilarious moments but as Hay Fevers go, its pollen count is low.

Until 6 September at Theatre Royal, Bath: 01225-448844, www.theatreroyal.org.uk – then on tour until 4 October.

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