Hay Fever, Noël Coward Theatre, London

The first Noël Coward play to be staged here since the Albery Theatre was renamed after him is his early success (from 1925) about a bohemian, self-dramatising family who drive their quartet of respective bit-on-the-side weekend guests loopy before Saturday has even begun. Never was a family as inappropriately named as the clan Bliss.

The tone is set and the running made by mother Judith Bliss, a long-successful stage idol who simply cannot resist striking a melodramatic attitude. The role has long been beloved of players keen to puncture their public image of mystique and poise: a few years ago at Chichester it was Diana Rigg, last time in the West End (in 2006) it was Judi Dench. Lindsay Duncan normally has poise and mystique in abundance, and so takes equal delight in both grossly parodying them in a husky Dietrich baritone and throwing them to the four winds in the vigorous family exchanges of the first act.

Howard Davies’s production has more theatrical names than you can shake a stick at. Judith’s novelist husband is a rumbling Kevin McNally; her precocious teenage offspring are Freddie (son of Edward) Fox and the ever-wonderful Phoebe Waller-Bridge (whose Sorel Bliss keeps aiming for poise, forgetting and lunging straight through it and out the other side). Jeremy Northam is cast against type as a sober diplomat – greying, slicked-back hair, heavy round spectacles – bedazzled by Judith. Olivia Colman at first also seems in unfamiliar territory as a metropolitan vamp, until we see her dissolve in bewilderment at the family’s acting-up.

Elsewhere, Davies’s directorial touch is less sure. The Blisses live in the prosperous Berkshire village of Cookham; Bunny Christie’s set may be intended to be a semi-converted boathouse but looks more like a former workshop in one of the less swish parts of Covent Garden. Not even a family as unconventional as the Blisses would live in this place in the 1920s. And giving the ingénue character of Jackie Coryton a more common accent may explain her social insecurity, but it cuts dead against her actual lines. Matters can also grow a little shouty even for Judith Bliss & Co, revealing that Coward’s fun is at root just as artificial as that of his characters.


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