First published in The Times, Friday March 17 2017
Dominic Hill, the artistic director of the Citizens Theatre, has won acclaim and awards in recent years for productions of Crime and Punishment and Hamlet presented on near-bare stages, with only a few essential props and the cast doubling as musicians. While his production of Hay Fever is not as skeletal as his previous shows, the staging here is more restrained than the usual lavish naturalism you get in productions of Coward.
Tom Piper’s set design provides just enough detail to convey the comfortably moth-eaten atmosphere of the Bliss residence. That the wings are in sight of the audience feels wholly appropriate to a play about a family who enact the mother of all pantomimes for the benefit of their houseguests, one of whom decries their antics as “artificial to the point of lunacy”.
By refusing to burden his stage with clutter, Hill sustains a ruthless focus on the farcical action. Susan Wooldridge heads up the cast, giving a wonderfully over-the-top performance as Judith Bliss, the retired theatrical grande dame, considering a return to the boards in a revival of Love’s Whirlwind. The dress rehearsal for this career revival is the weekend house party to which each member of the family invites an acquaintance and prospective paramour.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
There are no weak links among the nine-strong ensemble, and Hill expertly choreographs the set-piece sequences, notably the after-dinner parlour game that so delights the Blisses while bamboozling their guests. While the overall tone is gently amusing rather than riotous, the production also contains its fair share of laugh-out-loud moments. The stilted introductory conversation between the stuffed shirt Richard Greatham (Hywel Simons) and the petrified flapper Jackie Coryton (Katie Barnett) offers a master class in patient comic timing. Meanwhile, on opening night, the actors responded to the accidental upsetting of a sideboard bearing plates and cutlery with admirable composure, thus rendering the breakfasting scene all the funnier.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The most impressive quality on display here is the performers’ ability to bring recognisable qualities to these broad characters. For all their histrionics, we accept Judith, David (Benny Baxter-Young), Sorel (Rosemary Boyle) and Simon (Charlie Archer) as a family, and as their hapless guests creep away at the end, we keenly feel the intensity of the bond between them.