Dominic Hill’s production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever is a playful if traditional take on the well-loved 1924 comedy of manners.
Meet the Bliss family: the retired actress dreaming of her comeback, her husband the commercially successful author, and their grown-up son and daughter, both of whom are spoilt and impetuous. The whole household is self-styled bohemian and self-consciously alternative, dah-ling. They’ve each invited romantic interests to stay for the weekend, and chaos ensues as the lovers’ loyalties prove fickle.
The set design and costumes are suitably lush, with floating silks and dazzling 1920s dresses that drip with glitter. The staircase that leads down to the stage provides a convenient viewing point from which characters may spot unlikely lovers in improbable trysts.
Susan Woolridge revels in the role of the melodramatic Bliss matriarch, Judith, with a distinct nod to the stylised performance of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Judith is always ready for her close-up… Hywel Simons is particularly good as Richard, the awkward and achingly polite ‘diplomatist’ who falls under Judith’s spell. He gives an understated performance (one highlight being a painfully awkward scene where he tries to make small talk with an introverted flapper). Unlike some of the other actors, who talk over the audience’ laughter instead of engaging with it, Hywel knows how to milk every moment of a good line, and the script is loaded with them.
It’s not easy to keep a play fresh when it’s nearly 100 years old, and for the most part, this production plays it safe. There’s only one surprise, which (spoiler alert) I’m going to reveal now. During a scene change Myra McFayden, who plays the Bliss’ long-suffering housekeeper, steps into the limelight in front of the stage curtains to give a lovely solo rendition of Dinah Washington’s ‘Mad About the Boy’. Other than this scene, the play isn’t doing anything strikingly original, but then it doesn’t need to. Hill offers a straightforward, fun rendition of a classic.