HAY FEVER - MELBOURNE
HAY FEVER, Melbourne Theatre Company at The Sumner, Southbank, 23 September-28 October 2017. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - Gareth Davies, Marina Prior, Imogen Sage; below - Marina Prior, Kim Gyngell, Alexandra Keddie, Drew Weston, Imogen Sage; below again - Gareth Davies, Alexandra Keddie, Simon Gleeson, Monica Sayers
Written in 1923, Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is a wildly melodramatic comedy of awful manners. In its hey day, it would also have been “naughty” and drawn lots of ire with its risqué commentary and representation of scarlet women and opportunistic men; it would have had the chattering classes at full chatter.
The Bliss family are thus: mother Judith, a reluctantly retired actress (Marina Prior), her novelist husband David (Kym Gyngell), and their two grown up but still at home, obnoxious offspring, Sorrel, the pouting socialite (Imogen Sage) and Simon the dilettante (Gareth Davies).
Each member of the family has invited a guest to the country house for the weekend, without consulting each other, which creates the first of many shouting matches. When the doorbell rings it’s answered by Clara (Marg Downey) formerly Judith’s theatrical dresser and now the housekeeper. She is very Scottish and is perky and dismissive.
First to arrive is Sandy Tyrell (Drew Weston), Judith’s young and puppyish acolyte – who has a wonderful hop, skip and jump on all his exits. Next through the door is Simon’s guest, the vampish Myra Arundel (Monica Sayers). She has a wonderful stillness and the best line of the night as she sums up the Bliss family as a “feather bed of false emotions”.
Something like calm descends with the simultaneous arrival of the last two guests: a diplomat, Richard Greatham (Simon Gleeson), and a brainless ingenue, Jackie Croyton (Alexandra Keddie). They are unceremoniously left in the drawing room waiting for their respective inviters. It is a rather amusing stilted conversation done wonderfully well by Gleeson and Keddie, and coming after the histrionics of Judith deciding she will return to the stage and acting out a bit of her most famous play with her children, gives a momentary tranquility that’s much needed.
Gyngell also gives us calm as he walks through the mayhem oblivious to guests and family alike, concerned only with finishing his latest novel. Meanwhile, all around him – and finally enmeshing him too – are wild flirtations, misunderstandings and farcical disasters. And we get to hear the famous Prior singing voice as she serenades the diplomat, who of course falls for her, hook, line and sinker.
Prior is perfect as Judith, although opening night got the better of all the actors, especially in the first act as they rushed to get to the finish line. The pace was much better in the second and third acts – as they realised perhaps, that the audience was well and truly onside.
Director Lee Lewis has the genre down pat and has given the actors a lot of room to do what they do well. All the actors make a good fist of the high Coward style and all have wonderful moments to make their own. Keddie has a gift of a role and clearly relishes it. (Although her wig is not the best.) I particularly loved Gyngell’s “embrace” of his son in the final scene – one lovingly paternal finger tap on the arm – hysterical.
As it turns out, the self centred, bohemian Blisses are more than content with each other, and use the others as minor distractions. The guests – full of amazement and bewilderment at the beginning – can’t wait to escape as soon as possible after breakfast. The Blisses barely notice and merely think them rude!
With this kind of period nonsense, it would not be hard to devise startling costumes (Esther Marie Hayes) and they are pretty stunning. The set, of a drawing room that opens out to the veranda, with a piano nook (of course), unfinished painting on the high walls and the obligatory staircase, is beautifully realised by Christina Smith; and Paul Jackson’s lighting is apt, especially the morning after, complemented by a fine sound design from Kelly Ryall.
This production won’t shock as it did in 1923, there is nothing new, but what is there is the classic Coward intricacy and wit. If you’re looking for a ridiculous night out and smart performances, you will have a good time and a hearty laugh.
Worth a look.