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Hay Fever

Lindsay Duncan leads a strong cast in Howard Davies' slick revival of Noel Coward's 1925 play. logo
Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam
in Hay Fever
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Noel Coward's barbed play Hay Fever is, appropriately enough, at the West End theatre that now bears the playwright's name. Despite strong performances, most notably from Lindsay Duncan, director Howard Davies' production is a little too staid and slick -- and a little too forgiving of this vile brood and their actions.

The work, which debuted in 1925, is set in the grandly ramshackle Cookham home of the Bliss family. Matriarch Judith (Lindsay Duncan) is very much still a creature of the theater, although she's energetically embracing all things domestic during one of her regular periods of "retirement" from the stage.

Her husband David (Kevin R McNally) is a novelist in the process of completing his latest book and, given what we see of their children, Simon and Sorel, artistic mediocrity seems to run in their veins, alongside a tendency to preen and a total lack of empathy.

Over the course of a weekend, the family subjects their assembled guests to various humiliations and small cruelties, using them as a source of amusement when they choose to whilst otherwise ignoring them entirely. Indeed, the whole Bliss clan are rampantly self-involved and self-regarding, "artificial to the point of lunacy" as one guest comments; they thrive on their own personal dramatic interplay and are barely awake to the idea that their actions may have an impact on other people's feelings. Everything is a game to them, part of a broader performance in which they are the stars and everyone else mere bit players.

Judith Bliss is a great comic role and Duncan attacks it with glee, while resisting the urge to overplay. She dominates, but in a subtle, controlled way, only occasionally giving in to the exaggerated nature of the character. Her Judith is a woman of continuing confidence, sexual and social, and there's only ever the faintest inkling that she's in any way afraid of aging or losing the hold she has over people.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Sorel is like her mother in many ways but without the poise and refinement. She's alternatively gauche and gruff, a child playing dress-up and throwing poses. Of the female house guests, Olivia Colman is somewhat understated as the predatory Myra and Amy Morgan displays near continuous wide-eyed alarm and bafflement as Jackie.

The men don't have quite as much to work with as the women, but Jeremy Northam is plausibly and endearingly awkward as the strait-laced Richard, who seems the most genuinely shocked and unsettled by the family's awfulness, while Freddie Fox is flip and bratty as Simon.

Bunny Christie's suitably bohemian mews-cum-studio space, studded with bad art and wilfully uncomfortable, feels a little too urban for the play's given setting, but it fits the family well.

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