“People really do behave in the most extraordinary manner these days”
A Noël Coward play in the Noël Coward theatre, what could be more apt. Howard Davies’ production of Hay Fever is the first by Coward to play since the Albery Theatre was renamed in his honour, and featuring Jeremy Northam, Kevin R McNally, Olivia Colman and young talent like Freddie Fox and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, plus Lindsay Duncan with whom he did a very well received Private Lives in 2001. So the stars all seemed aligned for a rip-roaring good time but this ended up being the kind of hay fever I wish I could have taken anti-histamines for.
The play follows the outrageous antics of the four members of the Bliss family who each invite someone special to stay for the weekend with the intention of pursuing their private flirtations but end up driving everyone up the wall and coupling off in unexpected directions. But over the three acts, I found there to be precious little energy playing out in Bunny Christie’s rather drab design. Sluggish is the word that sprung to mind, from the (admittedly) set-up heavy first act through to the final act of reconciliation, as the air was of perfunctory run-through rather than finely-calibrated comedic excellence. Even the games of the second act which are rich in comic potential didn’t really catch fire like they ought despite Duncan’s best waspish efforts.
My abiding feeling was of everything just treading water aimlessly, even in the acting. Although early in his career, Freddie Fox seems far too averse to taking risks on the stage, playing to foppish type yet again; Olivia Colman feels miscast as femme fatale Myra, not sparking enough off Judith; Phoebe Waller-Bridge has little opportunity to demonstrate her considerable gifts; and Kevin R McNally made no impact on as father Bliss. Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam came off best for me, but even then I generally just felt underwhelmed. Crucially, I felt no connection between any of the groups of characters that were onstage at any one time: whether it was the Bliss family, the original couples or the pairings that everyone ends up in, I just wasn’t convinced that this wasn’t the first time any of them had met and this distinct lack of chemistry was the biggest problem for me.
Truth be told, I don’t remember much of the Dench-starring version that played at the Haymarket but the Rose Kingston’s production in late 2010 very much spoke to my interests, starring as it did the Imrie, the Gilbreath and the Swainsbury, and comparatively felt a fair bit funnier and certainly managed a much stronger dynamic between the cast. But even then there was the nagging feeling that perhaps familiarity has bred a little contempt, if the precision necessary to make Coward’s words really sing and sting with their innate melodic sharpness isn’t present, then one is left with a rather dull prospect.
Of the six of us there that evening, all on different level of the theatre, we pretty much ran the full gamut of levels of enjoyment (and interestingly people seemed to like it more the closer they were) so clearly people are finding much to appreciate in here. However I was not one of them, the lack of chemistry between the actors extended to me as an audience member and I very rarely felt engaged with what was happening onstage. So rather than disliking it which would at least have provoked some emotion in me, I was just bored by this production of Hay Fever which ultimately came across as criminally mediocre.