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The Theatreguide.London Review

Hay Fever
Duke of York's Theatre  Spring-Summer 2015

Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever as a sprightly romp and (like all his comedies) celebration of those too beautiful and witty to be bound by social convention. 

But Lindsay Posner's production merely plods whenever it tries to dance, with no one but its star Felicity Kendal demonstrating any real comic sensibility or skill. 

Except for the moments Kendal salvaged, opening night in London had all the sparkle and energy of a rainy midweek matinee near the end of a long provincial tour. 

This is the one about the bohemian family and their square houseguests. Father is a popular novelist, mother an actress specialising in juicy melodramas, adult son and daughter Bright Young Things. 

Each has independently invited a surprise weekend guest: a callow young fan for mother, a brainless flapper for father, an alluring older woman for son and a dignified diplomat for daughter. 

After some preliminary culture-clash comedy everyone pairs off in more age-appropriate ways – mother and diplomat, son and flapper, and so on – and what passes for a plot begins. 

To the surprise and horror of the guests, a bit of mild flirtation by each new couple is treated by the family members as grand passion, not because they're actually feeling anything but because those scenes are just so much more fun to play. 

Small spoiler alert: scared to death by what they seem to have embroiled themselves in, the guests run away, their departure barely noticed in the over-the-top play-acting that is the family's normal mode. 

Though the plots differ, you can see that this play is written in the same spirit as Private Lives or Design For Living, and it should have the same mix of high wit and thumb-the-nose-at-convention naughtiness. But no one seems to have told the people onstage. 

Sara Stewart shows an occasional touch of high style as the vamp and Michael Simkins invests the diplomat with a sympathetic reality. But pretty much all the comedy, and all the weight of carrying the play forward, is left to Felicity Kendal to carry. 

Now, I must note that, like all intelligent men of my generation, I have been in love with Felicity Kendal for decades. And she is a delight to watch. 

She alone onstage has a natural comedienne's sense of timing and an arsenal of comic devices, moving effortlessly from mock innocent coyness to earthy growl to witty zinger, and from calm to double-take to recovery. 

And if there is occasionally a hint of the mechanical and by-the-numbers in her employment of her bag of comic tricks, they all still work their wonders. And besides, they're just about all the production offers us to enjoy.

If, like me, you have the excellent taste and good fortune to have fallen under Felicity Kendal's spell, this Hay Fever will be well worth your time and ticket money. If not, not.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Hay Fever - Duke Of York's Theatre 2015 

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