Hay Fever is the sort of piece which it’s pointless to try to update: you have to play it straight down the middle or not at all. This production, with its solidly middleweight cast, almost plays it too straight; burdening the lines with such solemnity that the jokes get slightly swallowed up at times. But although I watched it thinking “this is really painfully overdone”, twelve hours’ distance has given it a rosy haze in my memory and I think I must have quite enjoyed it after all.
The set-up is very slight, and the fact that it takes fully half an hour to establish it is a problem. The whole play, in fact, sprawls rather, and could do with being shorter and tighter. There are long scenes played out without any laughs at all, such as the encounter between the “perfectly sweet flapper” Jackie Coryton and the “diplomatist” Richard Greatham which is a sustained wince of awkward small talk and is exactly as interesting as that sounds, and you can’t help wishing they’d got it out of the way offstage, since they are supposed to have arrived together.
The conceit at the heart of the play is the notion that the family of recently retired actress Judith Bliss are happy to play up to her need for drama at all times. So we ought to be able to forgive the overblown Acting as part of the comedy, except that mostly, it’s not very funny. There are some very funny lines, but in this version they are delivered so vigorously that the humour is snuffed out before it has a chance to breathe. And if the Bliss family’s penchant for histrionics is to surprise us (and it can’t hope to make us laugh if it doesn’t), it needs to be balanced with some lightness, some quietness, some space. But there is none: it’s just three acts of shouting.
So why did I enjoy it? Well, it is funny, and some of the cast are excellent: I thought Kevin R McNally as David Bliss, Amy Morgan as Jackie Coryton, Jeremy Northam as Richard Greatham and Jenny Galloway as Clara, the long-suffering theatrical-dresser-turned-housekeeper, were all very good, and did bring some of that much-needed quietness. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox (don’t they sound like Coward characters in their own right?), as siblings Sorel and Simon Bliss, were very good when they were playing up to their mother. And Lindsay Duncan was good as Judith Bliss during the set-pieces, but I couldn’t help wishing that she would calm down just a notch in between times. It all felt a bit relentless.
However, the whole thing is carried off with great charm and good humour, which is what I would expect and hope for from a Noël Coward revival, and I think I am being overly mean because it was almost very good indeed, and I wouldn’t want you not to go on the basis of my review, because it put me and the rest of the audience in a good mood, which is the main thing you need from a comedy, isn’t it?