Hay Fever

May 19 2022 | By More

★★★☆☆      Lightly hilarious

Assembly Roxy: Wed 18 – Sat 21 May 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

Every family has their foibles, but the Bliss family are next-level eccentric in Noel Coward’s delicious comedy Hay Fever – brought to the Assembly Roxy by EGTG for four performances only.

In terms of its farce, the local amateur company provide all the necessary quick-fire movement and repartee under Martin Foreman’s intelligent direction. As a comedy of manners, while he doesn’t quite get a uniformity of tone to the Bliss family out of the company, there is a lightness of touch – and some scenes are so beautifully played as to make you choke with laughter.

Grace Gilbert, Angela Harkness Robertson and Gregor Dickie in Hay Fever. Pic: EGTG

Hay Fever is set in the Bliss family’s large house in not so rural Cookham. Each of the four family members has invited a different guest down from London for the weekend – without informing any of the others. Or, for the most part, the live-in maid Clara.

The family is run by matriarch and one-time tigress of the West End stage, Judith. Angela Harkness Robertson plays her with the floaty, distracted air of one whose thoughts are on loftier things. Or maybe she is simply too self-obsessed (and dim) to notice anything untoward.

It is dominated, however, by siblings Sorel and Simon, whose self-obsession has no limits and who know exactly how to press their mother’s buttons, simply by moving the conversation so it turns into a re-enactment of a scene from one of Judith’s greatest melodramatic moments of over-the-top romantic intrigue.

easy, scathing wit

Grace Gilbert grabs all the limelight here, creating Sorel as an insufferable young thing of the kind that expects all around them to do their bidding. Gilbert has the character and class down perfectly, with a loud, demanding delivery and easy, scathing wit; all-too-quick with the put-down.

Gregor Dickie’s Simon is equally self-absorbed, a man-child who is willingly infantilised when around his mother and who expects everyone else to adore him with the same fondness.

Wendy Brindle and Gregor Dickie in Hay Fever. Pic:EGTG

Dickie, like Harkness Robertson, doesn’t quite get the braying tone of such people. As a consequence, both Simon and Judith can feel slightly under-played. In contrast, Oliver Cookson, as father David who spends his life in his study writing dreadful novels, is suitably taciturn – yet sharp.

It is the arrival of their guests which drives the comedy. Joseph Cathal as a young sporty type who is infatuated with Judith and Wendy Brindle as man-eating Myra Arundel, known to them all but invited down by Simon, who imagines himself in love with her.

Steady performances from Cathal and Brindle keep the comedy simmering as they meet the various family members.

truly begins to boil

But it is with the arrival of Laurence Wareing as elderly diplomat Richard Greatham and Lois Williams as ingenue Jackie Coryton that this truly begins to boil.

Unannounced and ignored by all, they sit waiting for something to happen. And it is the most deliberately hilarious and jaw-droppingly painful scene in the whole piece, as they try – and fail – to break out the small-talk. This is all about reactions: the look on Williams’ face is worth the price of admission in itself.

Lois Williams and Laurence Wareing in Hay Fever. Pic: EGTG

Given the confines of the Roxy Upstairs, the company has created a fine, working set – subtly lit by Gordon Hughes – which might not have the complexity Coward conceived, but which does the job. The entries and exits all work and facilitate a nicely brisk pace.

Beverley Wright, whose Clara is suitably out-of-sorts and put-upon, is a vital part of the oil that keeps this going. Her grumpy responses say much more than the lines themselves. And her presence in the intervals, re-dressing the set as she lays the table or arranges the drinks cabinet, is both theatrically in keeping and a remarkable piece of performance in itself.

There is perhaps more to be found here in Coward’s exposure of the would-be and the faded socialite at play. It also feels as if there is more to be had in the intrigue between David and Myra, who are both beautifully played but whose scene together appears to have more potential than is realised.

However this is a great night of comedy, whether it be mannered, farcical or observational. It is a particular joy to see this classic delivered in such an effortlessly funny manner in a production that, at its best, is downright hilarious.

Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes (including two intervals)
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Wed 18 – Sat 21 May 2022
Evening: 7.30pm (Roxy Upstairs)
Tickets and details: Book here.

Joseph Cathal, Gregor Dickie, Grace Gilbert, Wendy Brindle, Oliver Cookson and Laurence Wareing in Hay Fever. Pic: EGTG


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