It’s the early 1920s, and in rural England, the four members of the Bliss family have each invited someone to stay for the weekend. Unfortunately for them, but very much fortunately for us, they’re all awful: self-absorbed, argumentative, and terribly, terribly dramatic. Cue hapless misunderstandings, passive-aggressive party games, and a wide variety of awkward looks. In other hands, there might be more viciousness, but here there’s barely a whisper of it. Nevertheless, it makes for compelling watching.
Noël Coward’s script feels very written, but for all that it’s light and bright and there’s never long to wait for a witty aside or retort. The effect is a show that is very good fun for its own sake, but in an uncanny little bubble of its own, never really commenting on anything outside its own space. It’s deliberate, of course – as the visible scaffolding in Tom Piper’s gorgeous set design attests to. It’s escapism, and revelling in it – and watching it, it’s very easy to join in.
Susan Wooldridge, as matriarch Judith Bliss, gets all the best lines and knows very well what to do with them. Hywel Simons as stuffy, introverted “diplomatist” Richard, and Katie Barnett as timid Jackie, manage to ride the awkward pauses so that they’re as amusing and watchable as the dialogue, which is no mean feat. Myra McFadyen, as housekeeper Clara, seems practically down to earth in comparison, but likewise boasts some excellent comic timing.
It’s funny, or I always find it so, how you can take something with such a very light touch, add a few generations to it, and it feels like the time sucks some of the subtlety from it. The curse of Coward is that his work has been so influential – and Hay Fever not least of that – that you can see the echoes of his style cropping up in all sorts of places, being added to and riffed upon and generally moving with the times. With that in mind, there’s a very fine dividing line between vintage and dated. By and large, this co-production by Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre falls on the right side. But it’s a delicate balance to strike.
All photos by Mihaela Bodlovic.
Hay Fever is running at the Lyceum Theatre until 1st April and more information on the production can be found here.