Review: Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. Lace Market Theatre. Nottingham

You may think all your Christmases have come at once if you are a fan of Noël [Coward] and get to see this top-class amateur production of Hay Fever, one of his enduringly popular comedy dramas, at The Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham running 14-19 November. We are privileged this evening – Saturday 12th November – to be invited guests, and to enjoy a preview of the play as part of the amateur theatre company’s 100 years anniversary Gala evening event. As a historical tidbit, courtesy of the company play brochure, Hay Fever was written just two years after the foundation of the Nottingham Playgoers’ Club which eventually became The Lace Market Theatre.

Noël Coward wrote Hay Fever in 1925 when posh drawing room dramas and comedies were lapped up by middle-class and upper middle-class audiences on the whole; monied society who adored Coward’s brittle humour and economic and erudite wit. Even though Noël Coward was born into an impoverished working-class family in 1899, by 1925 he had already begun to show and sell his talents for playwriting, composing, directing, acting, painting and singing and had worked his way into artistic and social society way beyond any expectations of his humble beginnings through hard work and clearly well above the average talents. He was to eventually be known as The Master and loved for his cheeky flamboyance, a sense of pose and poise and incredibly prolific writing in varying styles. His artistic career spanned six decades, and he starred in many of his own works. Of criticism itself Sir Noël Coward was known to have quipped in his famous clipped and plummy tone, “I love criticism just as long as it’s unqualified praise.” We’ll try our best to honour that wish on here Sir Noël, gawd bless you guvnor.

Hay Fever is full of larger-than-life characters that live enormously spoilt and privileged lives yet often express themselves with degrees of fragility as if their world is going to fall apart any second. It is a comedy of ill manners, you might say. Subtle social cruelty is metered out on the unwitting house guests by the snobbish Bliss family, primarily the on the surface charming but manipulating patriarch David Bliss (Fraser Wanless) who has a love-hate relationship with his retired actress wife Judith Bliss (Helen Sharp) and a helpless need for constant amour fou. Altogether Hay Fever is a farce of misunderstandings, romantic dalliances gone wrong and flaring tempers, culminating in a madcap ending. Unlike Mike Leigh’s savagely biting play Abigail’s Party, equally about social aspiration and snobbishness, and written several decades later, Hay Fever comes across as a much milder theatrical vehicle for social satire and eccentricity.

This sparkling Hay Fever production at The Lace Market Theatre is directed by Peter Konowalik and the casting is a perfect confection of some of the best of Nottingham’s amateur player talents. The aforementioned Fraser Wanless and Helen Sharp are fabulous as estranged married couple David and Judith Bliss and the on-stage action reveals some blissfully witty performances from Rosie Randall and Luke Willis as their offspring, Sorel and Simon.

The play’s house guests are Myra Arundel (Tamsin Grayson-Gaunt), Richard Greatham (Jonathan Cleaver), Sandy Tyrell (Harrison Lee), Jackie Coryton (Tabitha Daniels) and the grumpy former dresser now put-upon housemaid Clara is played with grounded insouciance by Cynthia Marsh.

The sophisticated comic wit of Noël Coward is plentiful in this period piece and lines like “You kissed me because you were awfully nice and I was awfully nice and we both liked kissing very much. It was inevitable.” “People have died from hiccups you know!” and “Couldn’t you see that all my flippancy was only a mask, hiding my real emotions … crushing them down desperately!” are perfectly rendered throughout.

Tamzin Grayson-Gaunt as Myra Arundel gives us an attractive yet wonderfully aloof depiction of one of Coward’s strong female roles and is equally good when the need occurs for a comical seduction with Fraser Wanless’ pompously confident David Bliss. In an explosion of alliteration Helen Sharp’s highly theatrical Judith Bliss is flirty, flighty, funny, flamboyant and a frothy female delight throughout. Sharp gives a whole new interpretation of swanning about the stage and this audience love her and Judith’s OTT gesturing.

One of the funniest scenes manifests itself in the ‘rippingly’ awkward relationship between Johnathan Cleaver’s well-travelled yet bashful Richard Greatham and Tabitha Daniels’ very likable Jackie Coryton whose foreign travel experiences are limited to a short stay in Dieppe. Like the rest of the Hay Fever cast, their comic timing is spot on.

Very amusing though Coward’s play text is, the light comedy essences of this production aren’t limited to the spoken word. There is much to admire, and giggle at, in the body language of all of the characters and their maladroit and often pretentious interactions with each other in their weekend in the country chez the family Bliss. Harrison Lee as love struck Sandy Tyrell is a particularly good exponent of deliberately under-played physical comedy.

This superbly eccentric Lace Market iteration of Hay Fever is graced with wonderful period furniture and the well-considered, stylish and believable set of the wealthy Bliss family home by the Thames, circa 1920s, has been designed by Emma Pegg. The stylish period costumes are courtesy of Max Bromley and the hair and makeup are overseen by Linda Croston and Lily Goult. The Hay Fever sound and lighting are by Simon Carter and David Billen.

Highly recommended.

Hay Fever photo credit: Kathryn Edwards.

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