REVIEW: Hay Fever at Cambridge Arts Theatre

The cast of Hay Fever.

The cast of Hay Fever. - Credit: Archant

At the venue until Saturday (October 4)

Many theatricals stayed at the home of actress Laurette Taylor and her husband Hartley Manners who would invite guests, deride them when they weren’t good at the party games and then argue among themselves and ignore them. However, Noel Coward turned the ghastly experience into a great play.

Hay Fever is set in the 1920s in the country home of retired actress Judith Bliss, her novelist husband David and their teenage children Sorel and Simon. Each has invited a weekend guest. They bicker over who will stay in the “Japanese room”, the only hospitable guest room in the house and who will be consigned to “Little Hell”, the boiler room with all the pipes.

But once the guests arrive, they are there only for the family’s amusement. Rather bored with their own guest, each Bliss decides to flirt with someone else’s. To spice it up, every gesture is deliberately misconstrued. One innocent embrace and the hapless friend will hear it announced that they are engaged. To the guest’s shock and bewilderment, both David and Judith will declare they will leave their spouse.

Judith will announce, with all the melodrama of the 19th century stage, that painful as it is, she will “give him to you freely and without rancour”.

Coward was parodying self-absorption. Judith doesn’t understand anyone else’s world. When she hears that her guest Sandy Tyrell the boxer (an amusing James Corrigan) is going back into the ring, she says: “I must come to your first night.”

Naturally, Judith’s children also see themselves as the centre of the universe. In a moment of reflection, Sorel wishes they were nice like other people. She sighs: “We never ask people if they have slept well.”

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This is a comedy of lack of manners with a running parody of mannered acting. At the drop of an unwitting prompt line by a bemused visitor, Judith and her children will break into her favourite play Love’s Whirlwind and act themselves not just over the top but over the Himalayas.

Felicity Kendal as Judith Bliss does, as Judith Bliss might say, her very best. But her performance just isn’t rich enough. She doesn’t take Judith where she needs to go. Some of the most glorious lines are thrown away in a delivery which is too flat.

The mannered acting needs to be saved and savoured for the play within the play and the faux declarations of love, but it isn’t. There is far too much acting of ACTING throughout. The style is stale and the contrast is lost. That’s why this production isn’t anywhere near as funny as it should be. We don’t see the Blisses in all their infinite variety.

Sara Stewart and Michael Simkins give natural performances as the guests Myra Arundel and Richard Greatham but they can’t save this production from being rather pedestrian. It’s slow when it should be a riot.