by Noel Coward
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Theatre Royal, Bath
Saturday 23rd August, 14.30 matinee
Felicity Kendal as Judith Bliss
Simon Shepherd as David Bliss
Alice Orr-Ewing as Sorel Bliss
Edward Franklin as Simon Bliss
Sara Stewart as Myra Arundel
Michael Simkins as Richard Greatham
Celeste Dodwell as Jackie Coryton
James Corrigan as Sandy Tyrell
Mossie Smith as Clara
Judith Bliss (Felicity Kendal)
When you write these reviews, you can guess in advance that Shakespeare plays get vastly more “hits” than any other reviews, followed by other Jacobeans followed by modern plays. Coward, Ayckbourn and Rattigan get the fewest readers here, but sell very well at the box office. Prove me wrong …
Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever in 1924 and it was first performed in 1925. He based it on a Bohemian theatrical family, and always envisaged “a great star” in the lead role … starting with Marie Tempest, then sixty, who was as theatrical as you can get, having moved from opera to comedy. She was known as “The Queen of her profession.” Coward himself said that the play has no plot and few witty lines. However it gives everyone on stage a chance to ham it up hilariously, and it always seems to work. As ever, Coward claimed he wrote in three days, writing speed being something he boasted of endlessly, perhaps because he wanted to conceal the amount of thorough work he really did. Coward was fibbing, trying to be the dilettante who worked just three days a year. Bullshit, Noel. You worked and worked and polished this one.
I’d put Private Lives, Blithe Spirit and Hay Fever as the most consistently enjoyable Coward plays, though Rik Mayall in Present Laughter at Bath was easily the best Coward production I’ve ever seen. That was the lead actor though.
Judith Bliss with Sorel (Alice Orr-Ewing) and Simon (Edward Franklin)
We last saw Hay Fever at Chichester five years ago, missing out on the highly-rated 2012 West End production. Chichester starred Diana Rigg as Judith Bliss, and the secret of success with the play is casting a real “star of stage and screen” as Judith Bliss and benefitting from borrowed fame and charisma for the part of the great actress close to retirement. Bath has Felicity Kendal. It also has acclaimed comedy director, Lindsay Posner, in his first shot at Noel Coward.
Judith Bliss (Felicity Kendal) and Sandy Tyrell (James Corrigan)
Judith Bliss is a retired actress, married to a novelist husband, David. Their two grown children, Simon and Sorel live at home, and each of them has invited a guest for the weekend. Judith has invited syncophantic but dull fan Sandy Tyrell. Sorel has invited hidebound diplomat Richard Greatham, much older than her. Simon has invited Myra Arundel, again much older than him. David has invited the mousey Jackie Coryton (and forgotten all about it). Then it’s a case of Change Partners.
The play always works. This was sublime because Felicity Kendal was perfect casting. Her vivacity, facial mobility and energy level are just right. Judith is often played “older” but Felicity Kendal still looks young enough for the character to believe herself to be a femme fatale. She’s slim, petite, vigorous. That’s important. She does NOT look over the hill. With, er, more aged looking actresses, the willing suspension of disbelief that she thinks she can’t look as if she has grown children gets stretched. Her comedy timing is exquisite. Her expressiveness is superb. She can eat, look attracted and look offended all in the same moment. She has rare stage magic. A tribute came when someone in the play said to her “At your time of life …” and there was a loud sympathetic but outraged “Oooh!” from the entire audience. We had all taken on her viewpoint. Her career, from Shakespeare tours of India as a child has embraced every genre of theatre, but she will forever be remembered for those four years in The Good Life which gives her a sitcom advantage over the actresses in the role known for their more serious parts … though she has done all those too, and for far longer than that brief TV period.
The word games, Jackie (Celeste Dodwell) tries her word
The support cast all contribute. Special mention for the little mouse Jackie, played by Celeste Dodwell. Michael Simkins is a definitive Richard, the diplomat ensnared by the whole thing. Simon Shepherd as the novelist husband sports a Bohemian beard … as ever, the publicity photo was probably taken before rehearsals even started. Everyone is great. Act Two has the best bit of the entire play where the family slide into re-enacting one of Judith’s past acclaimed over-the-top scenes at the end. Coward was effortlessly pastiching the melodramas of the day. It also starts with the word parlour game which is completely brilliant writing, and performing. The direction is exemplary too, pulling every nuance out of it.
David Bliss (Simon Shepherd)
A little snide comment on Noel Coward. Clara is Judith’s old dresser, now the much put-upon housekeeper. He has Clara say “You mark my words, there’s hanky panky going on.” While Noel could script Bohemian banter with aplomb, every time he tries to write “working class” it’s hackneyed. “You mark my words” is what Noel Coward fondly imagined all working class people said as the preface to any utterance. See This Happy Breed. I always wonder how a writer could get upper class banter so right, and the servants’ hall so cliched. The man had an ear for dialogue, but lord luv’a duck, Noel, mate, just mark my words, you couldn’t write what us ordinary folk say, and that’s a fact! Also, you might do a “several characters creeping off” once as an ender, but after the success of this play, it became a cliché.
The set, an arts and craft country house (rather than the stylish art deco of other productions) really contributed by giving the four guests a staircase to creep down for their escape. The set looked right. The staircase was covered with framed pictures and programmes.
David Bliss & Judith Bliss
After its short run at Bath, the production visits Canterbury, Richmond, Brighton and Cambridge.
With Noel Coward, smoking is predicated by the script. Judith Bliss is continually asking people to give her a cigarette. Part of the play.
SEE ALSO NOEL COWARD PLAYS REVIEWED ON THIS BLOG:
Blithe Spirit, Bath 2010
This Happy Breed, Bath 2011
Relative Values, Bath 2013
Fallen Angels, Salisbury Playhouse 2015