To the best of my knowledge, the Blisses in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever are unrelated to Harry Bliss and relations, the subject of Peter Carey’s novel and Ray Lawrence’s film. But, who knows? Certainly, there’s a large quantum of eccentricity that pervades both families.
Take Judith, for example. She’s the very quintessence of the egocentric, fading actress, making the most of every opportunity, on and off stage, to be the centre of attention, and almost nothing, no matter how high-pitched or histrionic, is out of the question, to get it. As such, it’s a God-given role for Alice Livingstone, who has both an apparent penchant and perspicacity when it comes to such characters. Her English accent fluctuates here and there, but her washed-up femme fatale is just what the doctor, or the playwright, ordered.
But first we meet her thoroughly spoiled children, now young adults, Simon (David Halgren) and Sorel (Georgia Brain), almost as insufferable as their “look at me!” mother. We don’t see much of their father, David (James Bean), who’s no more magnetic, since he sensibly spends much of his time confined to his study, upstairs, where he pens second-rate novels.
Director Rosane McNamara has recruited David Marshall-Martin as set designer, which has proved judicious. To a detailed degree, M-M has created the ambience of a 1920s country house in Cookham, Berkshire, by the Thames. McNamara has matched up exceptionally well in the costume department, too. Thus, there is a sturdy hook on which to hang the central conceit of the play: each family member, unbeknownst to the other, has invited a guest for the weekend. Collectively, they’re a kind of Addams family, really the horrors lie not in their appearances or lifestyles so much as their manners and behaviours more generally. Their boorishness and selfishness is so accentuated that, when their guests collude to agree they can take no more, they barely even notice their departure.
Coward might’ve posed as a member of the upper classes, but that wasn’t his background, and I’m sure it was a calculated ruse to infiltrate their inbred ranks and collate material for a petard on which he’d later take much delight hoisting them. Of course, this ensured he was roundly dismissed, about which he at least feigned nonchalance, decrying ‘message’ plays and sticking to his satirical guns. Regrettably, in seeing this production, I became aware, somewhat to my surprise, that the caravan has moved on: short attention spans, rapid-fire sensory bombardment, both impacts of the digital age, seem to be taking their toll on old-school entertainment. This is not to diminish Coward’s ingenuity or wit, which was and is, undeniable. Yet this play, in many respects, has become something of a curiosity; a museum piece. One many of us will nostalgically hold close to our hearts (and minds), for sure. But something of a quaint anachronism, nonetheless. In a way, this incongruity is puzzling: was it so many years ago we so affectionately embraced Seinfeld, which was also, after all, about nothing? But perhaps that’s the point. Even the tangential trivialities of the eighties television sitcom managed to provoke insights; often embarrassing. Humour becomes the sugar with which to coat the bitter pill.
Notwithstanding, perhaps, some room for a tauter, punchier production, New Theatre’s Hay Fever stands as a fitting tribute to Coward, with uniformly wrong performances. Irrespective of Coward’s stated insistence on plays of little or no consequence, we can observe the vacuousness of the Blisses’ lives as if they were our own.
Maybe they are.
The details: Hay Fever plays New Theatre until November 2. Tickets on the company website.