Last Updated on 8th May 2015
Duke of York’s Theatre
7 May 2015
“She uses sex like some sort of shrimping net.”
Noël Coward certainly knew how to write colourful, but eminently appropriate, insults. This one is used by Judith Bliss, the central figure, in Hay Fever, Coward’s 1925 “clean” play, to describe her personal bête noir, Myra Arundel, prior to her arrival, as guest of Judith’s son, Simon, at the Bliss country residence in Cookson. Judith can’t bear Myra, a fact illustrated deliciously by Felicity Kendal in Lindsay Posner’s revival of Hay Fever now previewing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, following a season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, and a UK tour.
Kendal, given the news of Myra’s impending arrival by Simon, freezes on the chaise longue, the blood in her veins turning instantly to solid ice. A look of wild, furious alarm, mixed with feline acuity, dances across her heavily-mascara- laden eyes. “Mmhhirrerr” she snarls-purrs-sighs, both wistfully and vengefully. In delivering that one word, Kendal demonstrates her complete control over the Judith character, her absolute understanding of the complexity, contradictions and charm which whirl together to create the force of nature that is Mrs Bliss. Even her name, Bliss, suggests the inherent duality of the character.
Coward’s play is an intricately constructed, beautifully judged farce. It provides eight glorious character parts and endless opportunity for jolly good fun.
Mr and Mrs Bliss and their two children, Simon and Sorrell, are living in the country, playing at being gentrified folk. She retired as an actress last year; he writes racy novels in the upstairs study. She does not like the country, but seizes every opportunity to pretend she does, enjoying playing the part of the paddock Princess and having her devoted dresser, Clara, make a meal of being the long-suffering housemaid.
Each member of the Bliss family invites someone, an admirer or an admired, to the house for the weekend – without telling the others. By comparison to their hosts, the four visitors, including the shrimping Myra, are relatively normal, yet even so, each is a particular type: the femme fatale, the ingénue, the sporty lad and the distinguished gentleman. As the weekend proceeds, the Bliss family wreak havoc on their guests, coupling and uncoupling with them with fearless abandon.
The Bliss family loves an argument, a party, a chance to show off and play. They love using other people as pawns or playthings, rather as a cat uses a dead mouse. But there is a contentment and relaxed assuredness to their deeds and misdeeds; more Cheshire Cat than Shere Khan.
Felicity Kendal is a triumph as the effervescent, self-indulgent diva that is Judith. Her throaty, raspy tones; the endless lighting and stubbing out of cigarettes; the casual, but persistent, flick of tousled curls; the innocent eyes and the naughty remark and the naughty remark and the innocent eyes; the devilment, the wild abandon, the sneaky confidence, the haughty indifference. Every aspect of the performance is beautifully judged by Kendal.
Throughout, her winning style and charm makes you forgive her tetchy rudeness, her casual insults, her cruel observations. There is a breathless moment when she descends the stairs, totally ignores two guests (the ingénue and the gentleman), fastens protective overboots to her glamorous high heels, and struts past the visitors, dragging her young admirer in her wake, all the while utterly ignoring the guests. This is funny enough, but the supreme moment comes later, when she acknowledges to the two guests that she had seen them and ignored them. She does it simply, casually, indifferently, rather as if she had just remembered that she had toast for breakfast. In a shameless display of feminine superiority, she renders them irrelevant and herself more endearing at the same time.
But Kendal doesn’t stop there. She then goads the gentleman into a kiss of lustful admiration and, once the bait is taken, springs the trap by announcing, like Medea or Antigone might have said something important, that her husband must be told the whole truth. Judith’s endless quest for drama, and being the centrepoint of that drama, is crystal clear, ringing clearly through every aspect of Kendal’s jewel of a performance.
The stage is ablaze when Kendal is there. This is a role in which Kendal should shine – and she does, with a resilient incandescence.
She receives some excellent, first rate support.
Sara Stewart is superb as the luscious man-eating Myra, all full flounce and girly excess. Her bearing and manner is supremely confident, splendidly judged. She is hilarious, both as predatory stalker and shocked house guest. She could pout for England in the Olympics.
Michael Simkins makes a perfect shocked gentleman caller, dapper and dignified, but willing to break the mould. His hilarious actualisation of the adverb “winsomely” (okay, he is confused) in a parlour game and his business with the fragile barometer in the final Act prove his comic skill. His scenes with Kendal are a particular joy, as are the achingly long, awkward pauses he and Stewart share in the scene where guests and Bliss bombs gather together in the parlour in endless silence.
Edward Killingback is near faultless as the gormless boxing chump, Sandy, lured to the country by Judith. Making a virtue out of gormless infatuation, Killingback is a delightful foil. His tasteless gorging on breakfast and subsequent violent expectoration of most of it (scrambled eggs on the front row!) jarred and seemed more ape-like than was necessary for this manly duffer. Celeste Dodwell, as ingénue Jackie, was suitably fragile and hesitant, although there was a roughness to her bursts of anger which seemed wholly misplaced.
This roughness was evident elsewhere and, on reflection, seems an attribute director Posner has, wrongly, brought to the Coward intrigue. There is nothing rough or hard about Hay Fever. The winds of change might blow freely and things might be said while others are meant, but the entire tone is playful, not vengeful, bright not bleak, and sumptuous not sour. Yet, in the playing of both Simon and Sorrell, there was far too much angst, rage and venom. The children seemed spiteful and vicious – not in a casual, relaxed and elegant way, as Coward intended, but in a vile, charmless and deeply unpleasant way. Alice Orr-Ewing was a particular offender in this regard: Sorrell is her name not her nature; in the same way that Bliss does not define her, neither does Sorrell. Temperamental, sure; sour, No.
Edward Franklin, as Simon, erred in the same direction as Orr-Ewing, perhaps following that lead. It was not possible to reconcile the Momma’s Boy who calls Judith “darling” with the shouty yob adept at snarling. Simon is a gift of a part, but he needs to be a coherent, charming whole. Like Sorrell, there is no room for a Curate’s Egg Simon.
Both Bliss children could take a leaf out of Simon Shepherd’s book. As the slightly professorial Daddy bliss, David Shepherd was an accomplished blend of flighty bluster, grand gestures and devastating blandness. He made the perfect Yang to Kendal’s Yin and it was easy to believe this couple had endured and fought through the decades. The final fight between the family over street names in inner Paris allowed Shepherd to shine in obstreperous extremity without losing sight of his lovability halo.
In the somewhat thankless role of Clara, Mossie Smith allowed you to just about smell the greasepaint and laundry powder about this former dresser. Posner had her engage in some odd bits of business, especially with the manner of her slamming doors, but Smith did not let such matters stop her from creating a good impression.
Peter McKintosh provides a truly impressive set, all wood and levels, with a superb clutter of theatre memorabilia and other accoutrements of a life well lived, in comfort and idiosyncrasy. The eclectic combination of furniture reflected the ramshackle approach to life held by all of the Bliss family and the acting spaces were generous and many-doored. Michael Bruce provided excellent original music which complemented Coward’s text superbly.
Paul Pyant’s lighting works a treat and there are many good effects – the sense of the thunderstorm brewing and then lashing down; the intimacy when Judith plays the piano and sings a French song; the slow fade to oblivion at the end of the First Act; the sense of splendid finery and evening delight when the formal dress Second Act opens; the sharp feel of bright morning for the final breakfast scene. All splendidly judged.
This is a delightful enlivening of one of Noël Coward’s brightest theatrical delights. It is a comic cake made with the best ingredients – and Kendal is truly the icing on the cake.