Theatregoers are no stranger to bizarre, disastrous dinner parties, from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to An Inspector Calls and various Agatha Christie whodunits, and Noël Coward’s Hay Fever about a bonkers bohemian family picks up on this familiar tradition with wit, whimsy, and more than a hint of weirdness. Coward’s play takes the seemingly familiar setting of French windows and tennis whites and takes it apart with what artistic director David Greig calls ‘an unsentimental scalpel’. In this production, director Dominic Hill presents one of Coward’s most durable comedies on the nature of family relationships with much the same wittiness and exuberance as Coward would have brought himself, handing us comedy coloured by commentary on the secret lives of retired artists who can’t quite let go of their theatrical pasts.
It’s the story of the obliviously dysfunctional Bliss family who have each invited a guest for the weekend, unbeknownst to each other. What follows is chaos: the wreckage of what could have been a pleasant country getaway is characterised by increasingly awkward pauses, explosive arguments, two hours of cringing with second-hand embarrassment at the sympathy of the guests, and a bamboozling turn of events in which the Blisses, vaguely incestuous at worst and facetiously artificial at best, are revealed to be so involved with themselves that they spend their lives creating needless conflict for entertainment. The humour was typical of a comedy of manners: charming, ironic, and witty. The biggest laugh of the evening, however, was born of a malfunction: a toppled breakfast trolley gave the actors lease to improvise, amplifying the confusion of the already ruffled guests, now scraping their haddock off the floor.
The cast brought the characters to life with delightful vivacity, lending depth and colour to seemingly artificial characters. Stand-out performances came from Katie Barnett in the role of Jackie Coryton, who utilised her role as the shy young woman for comic effect to make Jackie’s outbursts all the more surprising and hilarious. Charlie Archer was also an audience favourite in the role of wobbling beanpole wannabe artist Simon, smeared with charcoal, bounding around with the heedless physicality of a puppy-dog – there’s nothing quite like a man in his late twenties rolling around on a carpet like a toddler in a dreamily nostalgic country home set. He played alongside the pouting Rosemary Boyle as a short-tempered, indecipherable Sorel, whose mood swung around just as unpredictably as her mother’s costume. Susan Wooldridge as Judith is a force to be reckoned with, drawing out her character’s career in theatre to its final bewildering performance in the family dining room. These characters contrasted nicely with the reserved, cautious guests, and while this divide was somewhat lacking in the first act, it emphasised the sheer outlandishness of the family in the second.
The finale – a strange, confusing metaperformance for everyone but the Bliss family, is watched from behind fingers, to hide horrified expressions and stifled laughs, as the guests flee the house in a panic and the curtain falls on a domestic row. It is somewhat disappointing that we never find out the motives or past lives of the guests in the house, and they are used more as props rather than actual characters. It becomes increasingly clear that they are merely catalysts to the Blisses’ narrative, extras in their blinkered world of the English countryside. Perhaps this is to emphasise the façades that each character hides behind, but we never get to see past it. The dinner party becomes a game, but not everyone is playing; the guests and the audience are left to figure out the rules on their own, and castigated if they get it wrong. The effect is startling: it’s clear that the great secret life of the Blisses is rooted in a performance they are incapable of stopping.
Overall, the production leaves the audience more than a little confused, but leaving the theatre happily laughing over the performance. Coward’s play pushes our assumptions on each character, asking us to see past the comedy and find some hidden gem. Clara’s song (Myra McFadyen), though apparently glaringly incongruous, adds some romance to the production; the uptight diplomat is swept away with lust (Hywel Simons). The result is a whirlwind of colour, sound, and cigarette smoke. The Blisses’ dramas, their quirks, their passions and desires, all combine to create a play that holds out its hand to the audience, like Sorel and her mother to their guests, and begs, ‘let us entertain you!’. I would gladly recommend this comically strange dinner party to the quirkier theatre-lovers among us.