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A CurtainUp London London Review
Hay Fever

One always plays up to Mother in this house; it's a sort of unwritten law. — Sorel
Hay Fever
Alexandra Gilbreath as Myra and Stephen Boxer as David Bliss
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Noël Coward's 1924 comedy was written in three days and is about a country house weekend with the Bohemian Bliss family. When the National Theatre revived Hay Fever in 1964 with theatrical dames Edith Evans and Maggie Smith and theatrical knights Derek Jacobi and Robert Stephens, Coward is reported to have said "I am thrilled and flattered and frankly a little flabbergasted that the National Theatre should have had the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine and to give it a cast that could play the Albanian telephone directory."

Hay Fever is quite regularly revived, the latest at Chichester Festival Theatre last year and at the West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds earlier this year.This production's designer Simon Higlet's sumptuous set shows that no expense has been spared to give us an idea of opulent but chaotic country house living on two levels and this is just the hallways! I counted ten Persian rugs. The French windows overlook the river somewhere in Cookham, Berkshire the real life home of unconventional artist Stanley Spencer. This is where retired actress Judith Bliss (Celia Imrie) lives with her writer husband, David (Stephen Boxer) and their two overdramatic children in their twenties, Simon (Joshua McGuire) and Sorel (Georgia Maguire). Each family member, with the intention of forming a mock dalliance, has asked a guest for the weekend and promised them the Japanese room.

Simon's guest Myra Arundel (Alexandra Gilbreath) is a husky voiced femme fatale "she uses sex like a sort of shrimping net" presumably to see who she might catch! Sorel's guest is the stuff shirt diplomatist Richard Greatham (Adrian Lukis). Judith has asked her acolyte, the dashing, boater and blazered Sandy Tyrell (Sam Swainsbury) and David's guest is a shy secretary Jackie Coryton (Holly Jones). One of Coward's stock characters, the working class mildly stroppy maid housekeeper, Clara (Katy Secombe) completes the cast.

The first act felt rather uncomfortable as the cast found their feet in the difficult playing space for comedy that is the in-the-round Rose. They nervously project their voices in a rather theatrical, pantomime manner which doesn't suspend disbelief. However Acts Two and Three were a lot smoother and consequently more fun.

Celia Imrie has the difficult task of acting well in a role which demands that she is a bad actress. Joshua McGuire, the Tom Hollander look-a-like, is completely over the top and annoyingbut I did enjoy him flinging his head into his mother's lap with his head backwards and his neck fully stretched, as the Bliss children and their mother indulge in the 1920s equivalent of a group hug. I particularly likef Georgia Maguire's candid Sorel with her disgusting table manners noisily sucking the cream off her fingers from the cake produced at tea time. This is the feeding frenzy that is tea in the Bliss household.

Of the guests, Adrian Lukis' formal career diplomat has a twitch and an odd gait, his upper body held stiff pivoting from his hips, presumably after a lifetime of pussy footing around situations and producing small talk. He is of course deeply uncomfortable in this setting. I adored Alexandra Gilbreath's throaty vamp, Myra with her wonderful speech at the end of Act Two condemning everyone for their theatricality. The guests are subjected to bizarre parlour games and then ignored by the family. Each guest manages to hook up with a different Bliss to the one who invited them in a merry go round of phony flirtation before the guests sneak off unnoticed by the bickering Blisses.

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Hay Fever
Written by Noël Coward
Directed by Stephen Unwin

Starring: Celia Imrie, Stephen Boxer, Alexandra Gilbreath
With: Joshua McGuire, Georgia Maguire, Adrian Lukis, Holly Jones, Katy Secombe.
Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Sound: John Leonard
Costume Designer: Mia Flodquist
Music: Corin Buckeridge
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with two 15 minute intervals
Box Office: 0871 230 1552
Booking to 23rd October 2010 but please note Nicola McAuliffe will play Judith Bliss from 11th to 23rd October
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th September 2010 performance at the Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 1HL (Rail: Kingston)

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