Hay Fever – theatre review

Slapstick humour abounds in MTC’s revival of Noel Coward’s outrageous comedy Hay Fever. Set in an English country house in the 1920s, the play deals with the four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behaviour. Each invites a guest to spend the weekend, without initially telling the others.

Sorel (Imogen Sage) and Simon (Gareth Davies) are an uppity brother and sister. Mother Judith (Marina Prior) is a recently retired actor. She likes turning on the theatrics and decides to take to the stage again. Father David (Kim Gyngell) is an author in the throes of completing his latest book. To say their visitors have no idea what hit them is an understatement. Each arrives totally unprepared for what is about to follow. The way the hosts conduct themselves finally drives their guests to flee; but the Blisses are so engaged in a family row that they don’t notice their visitors’ furtive departures.

With a running time of 2½ hours, including two intervals, the first act establishes the characters and their relationships. The second turns the screws and has the guests jumping at shadows, while the final act has them heading for the hills as soon as an opening presents itself. While I can’t say I was all that taken by the action ahead of the first break, the production really kicked up a gear after that. From then on, much of it was downright hilarious.

Make no mistake, this is extremely lightweight fare. But the pithy writing has the unsuspecting guests tied up in knots and way out of their depth. For the uncontrollable Blisses, this is how they live their lives … every day. Their mantra is “take no prisoners” and the audience is the beneficiary.

Marina Prior is a standout as the mother. Among her plentiful hijinks we are also fortunate to have the opportunity to hear those golden tonsils, as she breaks out into song. She does comedy so, so well. Prior sets the standard, which others can’t quite reach. She knows just how to stir the pot to get maximum audience reaction.

The busy, wood-paneled set, complete with a piano – which at one point revolves – elaborate staircase, stained glass windows and even a King Tut prop, is a triumph for designer Christina Smith.

MTC’s production of Hay Fever applies the melodrama with a trowel. It’s directed by Lee Lewis with a cast of nine. It plays at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 28 October 2017.

*I saw a preview performance of Hay Fever.

Alex First

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