Hay Fever runs at the New Theatre from 10 October – 2 November 2013. By Noel Coward, directed by Rosane McNamara.
When I was in London recently, I was lucky enough to catch one of the final performances of Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End, starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. It was the most wonderfully enjoyable show: fizzy and frothy and funny and just gorgeous. When I was thinking about it afterwards, I realised that it was not really that substantial: Private Lives deals with love in some interesting ways, as I discussed in my review of the Belvoir production of the same show last year, but overall, it’s not going to be the show that changes your life, you know? But that doesn’t matter. It is what it is, and this particular production was like a glass of champagne – wonderful and crisp and light and leaving you feeling a bit merry for quite a while afterwards. It was the kind of show that went straight to your head.
What it also was – or, at least, felt like – was effortless. And that is where this production of Hay Fever at the New Theatre falls down. I don’t want to compare this show to the high-profile, high-budget one I saw in the West End – that would be totally unfair – but on this point, I think it’s illustrative. When you can feel the cast trying oh-so-hard? when the wheels are showing? when you can see the sweat beneath the sparkle? Comedy – especially champagne comedies like Coward’s – do not work so well.
Comedy is notorious for being one of the most difficult of the dramatic arts, and this need for effortlessness is, I think, one of the reasons why. Wit isn’t as witty when you can see the witty one working at it. And that is what happens in this production of Hay Fever: it’s funny, but it’s laborious. Coward’s script is so brilliant that it’s still a terribly enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre, but it lacks the fizz and the froth that it really should have.
This is particularly true of the first act. The scenes where the Bliss family – mother Judith (Alice Livingstone), father David (James Bean), son Simon (David Halgren), and daughter Sorell (Jorja Brain) – are talking together before their guests arrive feel like really hard work. The words and the jokes were there, but they didn’t quite make it to the level of “witty banter”. The actors all felt a little uneasy in their skins, especially the younger two. The timing wasn’t quite right (although I should note that this problem was mitigated somewhat as the show progressed). It was still funny, but it was also a bit awkward – especially because I think some of the cast were struggling a little bit with their accents.
The second and the third act pick up a lot. I’m not sure whether the actors managed to get their groove back after a flat start or whether this is a larger problem, but it certainly feels like a different show after interval. The greater stage time allocated to the Bliss family’s houseguests is a big part of this – everything suddenly becomes a lot snappier when the characters are interacting one on one. I’d like to especially commend Tess Haubrich as Myra Arundel, who was fantastic the whole way through the show. She absolutely owned her role and lit up the stage whenever she was on it.
If you go and see this production, I think it would be pretty hard not to enjoy it. It’s difficult not to enjoy Coward, even when you can see the cogs turning. With some tighter direction and some snappier, punchier interaction – and maybe a week’s extra rehearsal? – I think this could be a really great show. As it is, it’s good fun, but it’s not quite champagne.