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Hay Fever

Photograph by Bob-Seary

New Theatre presents HAY FEVER by Noel Coward at the New Theatre, Newtown.

Noel Coward’s HAY FEVER is given a perky and, mostly, stylish production at the New Theatre. Some regard Mr Coward’s plays as, relatively, frivolous pieces of fluff, and, certainly, Mr Coward himself, declared his distaste for “plays with a message”. Mr Coward’s prolific output needs not much introduction, and beside his play texts, has left an extensive musical repertoire, and some curious film projects that still hold some deal of interest (IN WHICH WE SERVE). Of his plays from the pre-World War Two era, many have become ‘institutionalised’ as classics of comedy. HAY FEVER (1925), PRIVATE LIVES(1930), DESIGN FOR LIVING (1931), TONIGHT AT 8.30 – a cycle of ten one-act plays (1936), PRESENT LAUGHTER (1939) – and we should include, BLITHE SPIRIT (1942), despite my dating parameter of this list.

HAY FEVER is pure comedy. It has no plot, really. The Bliss family, living in the country, invite, separately, a guest, each, to spend the weekend. The guests find themselves virtually ignored by their hosts and  become caught up, within, what appears to be a highly emotional family feud. Exasperated, and thrown into each others arms, the guests, evacuate, together, from the sphere of that very ‘theatrical’ family – they having had anything but a bliss filled time. The family are highly relieved with this resolution to the weekend. The comedy writing is engineered immaculately and it is, virtually, the juxtaposition of character and their predictable traits that make the play an uproarious time. A play about nothing (SEINFELD, hello), sprinkled with sprightly repartee and a few jokes of wit.

The play is almost a perfect example of comedy writing, as Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (1895), is. HAY FEVER is as difficult to bring to life onstage, as that great play, famously, is, too. It is in “Master Chef ‘ cooking terms, perhaps, as delicate as making a soufflé. If the Bliss family of characters and their guests have too brittle an edge, they can become tiresomely unpleasant, and be, simply, just plainly mean spirited, and, too silly to enjoy.

This company at the New Theatre under the expert, and splendidly textually detailed direction of Rosane McNamara (some classic staging on view, which some of our recent graduate directors could take notes from), acquit themselves admirably. There is an obvious, knowing sense of character – which must have real models of observation to be convincing – and the exaggerated genre of the play’s heritage, brought to bear. Most of the company seem to have the experience to blend their contemporary actor’s technique to the ‘period’ life of the play, on all fronts of the difficult task, Mr Coward has given them.

Alice Livingstone gives a perfectly marvellous lead performance as the Bliss family matriarch, Judith, (no Judith Bliss, no play, ever, I reckon) with all the comic ‘theatrical’ aplomb that is necessary – and add, the touch of her splendid musical vocals, and one could hardly want more (Ms Livingstone is having a sterling year, what, with this performance and the direction of TOP GIRLS for this company earlier in the year).

It is wonderful to welcome James Bean back to Sydney from Perth, is this splendid work, as husband/novelist, David Bliss, in what is usually, in my other experiences of the play, a fairly lack-lustre role. His scene with Ms Haubrich (Myra Arundel), masterfully judged – delicately funny.

David Halgren (Simon Bliss), has the intelligence and physical and vocal élan of the role which Coward wrote for himself, and is wonderfully, attractively, charming. Giles Gartrell-Mills (Sandy Tyrell); Tess Haubrich (Myra Arundel); Alyssan Russell (Jacquie Coryton) and Adrian Adam (Richard Grantham) are delicious in the ‘horrible’ circumstances their characters find themselves in. On the other hand, Jorja Brain (Sorell Bliss) seems, truly, out of her depth – shouting her role in a vacuous imitation of style, with very little embrace or nuance of character – and Sharron Olivier (such an illustrious surname) does not have the ensemble sense of timing for Clara, a character that functions, importantly, as part of the tempo action of the stage musical choreography – it is all in the timing,

The Set Design by David Marshall-Martin, unfortunately, has, perhaps, some well researched verisimilitude in its conception, but is entirely ‘over-weighted’ in its affect – it is stylistically ‘ugly’. It lacks any of the frisson of a contemporary eye and seems content to load the stage with every lovingly researched detail with no true feel for what could, should, can, work in presenting this wonderful soufflé-style play for a sophisticated contemporary audience. Visually, it feels like a very lumpen Christmas pudding, not what the recipe for success in this genre of play requires in 2013.

In 1964, the fledgling National Theatre of Great Britain, then at the Old Vic theatre, under the direction of Laurence Olivier, decided to revive HAY FEVER as part of their season. It was directed by Mr Coward himself and starred Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave and Robert Stephens, amongst others. Mr Coward, whose work had been ‘out-of-fashion’ and neglected, disparaged even, for decades, then, made an announcement about this plan and said :” I am thrilled and flattered and frankly flabbergasted that the National Theatre should have the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine and to give it a cast that could play the Albanian telephone book.”

I was surprisingly entertained and delighted with the New Theatre’s production of HAY FEVER. Ms McNamara, the Director of this production, and the President of the New Theatre Management, acknowledges that this work is indeed a surprising choice for this historically famous Socialist theatre, and draws a justification, that Mr Coward may be more than just a talent to amuse, and, today, may be a guide, a critical eye to the humans, the people of those past times – that delirious, unsettling time between the two great wars of the century, where political, economic busts and booms created generations of behaviour that were selfish, careless and completely self interested. The world of today, the political and social hypocrisies of the present, wars and revolutions, booms and busts – watch that stock market wavering – can easily be recognised in the frivolousness of this play. HAY FEVER once had the title of Oranges and Lemons – perhaps sweet and bitter – and watching this production of the play, one can simultaneously experience it with a tang of sweetness, because of its very silliness, and, yet, be given pause by the confronting mirrored image of our present human behaviours ,and taste a foreboding, underlying bitterness in its contemporaneousness.

A very curious perceptiveness on the part of the New Theatre, then. Coward and Chekhov writing comedies in a few acts! (a stretch?)

Let’s hope the company can keep up the necessary discipline and joie de vivre, for when I saw it, I felt that I could recommend this night in the theatre, confidently. I did so with JERUSALEM a little while ago, and suffered some little rebuke from some who had gone to see it on my enthusiastic urging, and were disappointed enough to leave at the end of the second act.