Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Review Hay Fever

Hay Fever
by Noël Coward 

Bohemian Rhapsody

“Why is Hay Fever called Hay Fever?”, mused TLT and her ruminating roadster about Noël Coward’s play, still in preview, as they gazed at the white stucco facade of the Duke of York’s Theatre in the heart of London’s theatreland. 

Barely two hours later, after the final curtain, this exquisitely structured, melodic (and like Private Lives), “comedy of bad manners”, written by a young Coward in 1924 following a trip to the USA, nevertheless  struck us  as rather sinister (or should that be, in Coward’s case, dexter?).

Are we meant to infer hay fever as feverish disruption and disarray? Or sexual peccadillos as in “a roll in the hay”? Or was it already slang for marijuana or cannabis or for ready cash?  Or should we reach for the anti-histamines? And what about scenes where house guests “play up” to hosts from hell like sane detainees in a mental home feigning madness to advance the career of the chief psychiatrist? 

The seemingly kooky hosts, inappropriately surnamed Bliss, reside in a manor house on The Wind In The Willows banks of the River Thames in the village of Cookham

The Bohemian “independent family”:  Veteran actress – and tippler --planning-a-comeback Judith (Felicity Kendal as a delicious domestic tyrant); Pot-boiler novelist David (Simon Shepherd looking just a tad like Coward biographer, the late Sheridan Morley) and late teens’ children Simon (boisterous Edward Franklin) and Sorel (boyishly played by Alice Orr-Ewing) settle down for the weekend, each having, unknown to the others, invited a guest. 

For Judith, Simon and, more ambiguously, Sorel, love trysts with a hearty sportsman, Sandy Tyrrell (a Wodehousian Edward Killingback), a society vamp (authoritative Sara Stewart) and  diplomat Richard Greatham (willing-to-break-protocol-by-the-play's-end Michael Simkins) are respectively on the cards. 

Meanwhile David wants to “observe” a young female flapper, Jackie Coryton (an equally pitch perfect performance by Celeste Dodwell) as a prototype for a character in his novel.  Funny – but rather sinister.

Coward famously said of Hay Fever that “it has little plot and remarkably little action”. 

Well, maybe at its own 1925 opening, there were more than enough plots going in countries mentioned in the play: Spain (military dictatorship and bullfights), Italy (dictatorship and lira crisis), Japan (Imperial Royal Family and US immigration quota) and Russia (Soviet Union? 1920s? Enough said). 

As Coward added, the play depends on “expert technique from each and every member of the cast”. But in TLT and her automotive sidekick’s opinion, every character, including dresser cum housekeeper Clara (Mossie Smith), who by the end has participated by proxy in the world of international finance, is inventing his or her own plots, trying to best the other characters. Plus it’s difficult to say how long any short-lived peace will reign.

Drawing on the music-like play structures of Bernard Shaw (there are more than a few Shavian references in Hay Fever), maybe there’s also  a clue in the hiccups which the sportsman Sandy Tyrell suffers in the final act.  

The play hiccups along like a guffawing playwright-erly musical hocket, an alternation of notes, pitches or chords for several voices.  Hocket from the French word hoquet meaning a sudden interruption -  or hiccup. 

All the characters are sucked into the playacting, the melodramatic tropes, the creation of literary works, the coming together in, then breaking of alliances and the injured parties. While even the apparently bumbling diplomat doesn’t care about throwing around other people’s baggage, as long as his own diplomatic bag is safe. 

Perhaps the family itself is a construct for the press. This is a play which delights in its own technical prowess and nuts and bolts. Maybe the father of the family David Bliss’s definition of his work in this febrile international atmosphere, where novelists, actors, playwrights, artists, diplomats, sportsmen, newspapers, critics (!!) and anyone with a secret play a dangerous tactical game, is sinister:

“The only reason I’ve been so annoying is that I love to see things as they are first, and then pretend they’re what they’re not”

This Theatre Royal Bath revival directed by Lindsay Posner benefits from a terrific Judith Bliss in scion of a theatrical family herself, Felicity Kendal. Backed all the while, with home county midsummer lighting (Paul Pyant) flooding through the French windows, by the finely-detailed wood-panelled galleried set design by Peter McKintosh, becoming a character in itself.

The production has toured extensively nationwide and in Australia before coming into the West End and shows every sign of bedding down nicely. At the same time, it may need a look at the pacing in the first act and some tightening to hone its brittle humour. But TLT and her hatchback are unashamed Coward groupies and present a coveted emerald-green light.

But we still haven’t learnt the definitive explanation as to why Hay Fever is called Hay Fever ;).

Tickets to Hay Fever courtesy of 
Official Theatre

PS Interestingly, as well as supposedly being inspired by an American couple, actress Laurette Taylor and Anglo-Irish playwright Hartley Manners, there was a Bliss family around at the time of Hay Fever. 

Between 1923 - 1925 the composer Arthur Bliss, whose career had taken off after 1918 and became famous at the same time as Coward, lived, met his wife in 1924 and married a year later in California. His wife's mother, aunt and uncle were all actors with her uncle also being a playwright.  Arthur, whose American father was from Massachussets, of course shares a surname with the family in Hay Fever. 

Does one mention of the name MacKenzie refer to  Compton (known as "Monty") McKenzie, (writer, actor, Scottish nationalist, member of British intelligence and later supporter of the abdicated Edward VIII (along with his drug-taking brother George, Edward also knew Coward)? Compton MacKenzie's sister Fay Compton also appeared in Coward's plays. But TLT and her cabriolet are only willing to share Google search hunches with the reservation that they are definitely only vaguely circumstantial and nothing more ...

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