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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Hay Fever
Noel Coward Theatre  Spring  2012

This Noel Coward revival starts far too slowly, eventually reaches a delightful comic peak, and then peters out again. 

That one peak scene (at the start of the second act) is almost, but not quite worth the ticket price, and for too much of the rest you'll have the sense of things operating at disappointing half-steam. 

A bohemian family – actress mother, novelist father, painter son and soign beauty daughter – delight in being shockingly unconventional, and particularly in playing everything over-the-top in mock melodrama, as if they were characters in one of mother's plays. 

This weekend they have each, without telling the others, invited a houseguest for some innocent flirtation – a young fan for mother, a brainless flapper for father, an older vamp for son and a distinguished 'diplomatist' for daughter. 

Most of the fun of the play, as you might guess, comes from the confusion and embarrassment of the guests at the family's outrageous behaviour, and the delight of the family in confusing and embarrassing them. 

The key word in that last sentence is 'outrageous', but director Howard Davies has chosen, for reasons I can guess at but disagree with, to curb his actors' impulses to go over the top before and after that one scene. (My guess is that he wanted it to really stand out, but he sacrifices too much for that effect.) 

You can see Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox as the adult children straining through most of Act One to be allowed to play as broadly as they want to, and Lindsay Duncan, with loads of witty and catty things to say as the mother but limited to a fairly naturalistic mode, sometimes seems more like Edward Albee's Martha than a Noel Coward heroine.

Ah, but when the family have swapped potential partners to more age-appropriate couplings – the diplomat for mother, the flapper for son, etc. – and the family members instinctively react to mild flirtations with high melodrama, as if undying love and life-altering commitments had been made, then both the civilians' confusion and the family's delight in play-acting are as hilarious as Coward intended and you could possibly wish. 

It's one scene and one scene only, but a great one. 

When turned loose by their director, Lindsay Duncan and Phoebe Waller-Bridge give marvellous comic performances, while Olivia Colman (vamp) and Jeremy Northam (diplomat) stand out among the squares.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Hay Fever - Noel Coward Theatre 2012

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