BWW Review: HAY FEVER Is A Hilarious Look At When Bohemia Meets High Society
Friday 15th April 2016, The Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Imara Savage's (Director) staging of Noël Coward's HAY FEVER for Sydney Theatre Company proves the farcical comedy of manners, written in 1925, is truly timeless. With no particular reference to any particular era, the audience is invited to witness a bizarre weekend in the country with the self-centered bohemian Bliss family and their four unsuspecting, more conservative guests.
Designer Alicia Clements has used a picture frame stage border to ensure that the audience feel they are looking in at the curious carefree family life that she has painted in incredible detail. The expansive English manor-house conservatory has signs of old money with an antique bar cabinet standing in the corner, an element of eccentricity as a claw-foot bath filled with cushions serves as a couch in the center of the room, and a degree of haphazard disorder with painting supplies and other amusements littering the room. Beyond the French windows, rows of trees give the impression of depth and expansive grounds. Whilst originally set in the 1920's Clements has given the aesthetic a more contemporary feel with the guests costumes drawn from modern revivals of retro stylings and the family remaining in a state of comfort and casualness in attire that is classic in its style, not attributable to any specific era.
The absurd comedy, believed to be based on Coward's New York Friends, Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners, centers on the Bliss family which comprises retired actress Judith (Heather Mitchell); her novelist husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), and their two grown up children that still live with their parents in an inherited country estate. Son Simon (Tom Conroy) is a painter with an aversion to washing and daughter Sorel (Harriet Dyer), at ease in her underwear, doesn't appear to have any specific career aspiration. Trying to adapt to the life of 'landed gentry', Judith has also bought with her Clara (Genevieve Lemon), her former dresser from her stage days, who now acts as the flustered housekeeper to the chaotic home.
It is through Sorel, who, despite enjoying the trappings of the artistic family and their position in society, toys with the idea of appearing middle class, that we get an insight into what is about to unfold. As she contemplates that she could be more 'normal' and accommodating and caring of others, it unfolds that each member of the family, in their self-absorbed way, has invited a guest for the weekend without informing anyone else. Through their treatment of their visitors, tennis player Sandy Tyrell(Josh McConville), apparently smitten with Judith, socialite Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson) who has Simon hot and bothered, David's muse, the dimwitted innocent Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke) and Sorel's fancy, diplomat Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes), that we see just how clueless the Bliss' are when it comes to caring for anyone other than themselves.
Heather Mitchell is delightful as the overly dramatic diva who craves chaos and attention. She interacts with the other characters with a wonderful comic timing and nuanced expression that allows the audience, particularly those not familiar with artistic temperaments, to believe that Judith, even as a larger than life and ludicrous character, could really exist. She has a flowing sensuality as she dramatically glides around the room as if she was still on stage, seduces the various interests through the evening and gets lost in her own delusions and games. As with all the family members, Judith is given a deliberateness with some of her actions, alluding to the idea that the family is treating their guests as a game in order to amuse themselves.
Father of the house, David Bliss, has a much smaller role but Tony Llewellyn-Jones ensures that he conveys the same level of self-absorbed eccentricity as the rest of the family. He has combined the family's unconventional disposition with an allusion to senility to create the writer who spends most of the first act locked away in his study. David's position as the more reserved patriarch of the family is also reflected in the more staid dark dressing gown and slippers but the fact that he continues to wear them, even when guests are being entertained, remind the audience that he is still a Bliss.
As painter, Simon, Tom Conroy gives the young man a handsome youth that gives the impression that he's probably traded on his good looks as much as his art, a point that designer Alicia Clements also seems to appreciate as she leaves him bare chested for the duration of the play. Conroy conveys that Simon enjoys the trappings of wealth and the entitled life whilst still wanting to be seen as a tortured artist, thinking that failing to bathe is a suitable affectation to express that he isn't a normal socialite, despite the fact that he still moves in their circles when it suits him.
His sister, Sorel, is presented as somewhat adrift in what she wants and Harriet Dyer conveys this through the changes in accents and the flip-flopping between commenting on the entitlement and bohemian lifestyle in favor of a more bourgeois life and enjoying the frivolity and freedom she has been bought up with. Her usual higher class accent drops to a rougher middle class tone of indeterminate region when she wants to distance herself from high society. She physically backs these changes up with a more confident aggression when she wants to relate to the middle class and a more fluid nonchalance when accepting the artistic environment that surrounds her.
As the unsuspecting houseguests, Briallen Clarke, Alan Dukes, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson capture the range of respectable, 'normal' society to which the Bliss' will never be part of. Thomson and McConville express that Myra and Sandy both know that they have been invited with salacious intent. Myra handles this understanding with a bored aristocratic grace of a socialite used to the fawning attentions of men with Thomson ensuring that Conroy's Simon has to work for any sign of affection. Conversely, McConville plays Sandy with a naivety and ignorance of how he is supposed to react to Judith's overt advances, particularly when she reveals that her husband is most definitely alive and well. Dukes presents Sorel's guest, the straight laced politician with a greater worldliness than McConville's Sandy as he entertains the idea of a dalliance but still holds on to more mainstream notions of what is acceptable and what isn't. Clarke captures the self-conscious, ditzy young Jackie whom David has invited to 'study' for literary purposes. There is a vagueness about who she actually is beyond an awkward young girl and of the guests, Jackie is the most easily shocked, confused and frightened by the rollercoaster ride she has found herself part of.
Housekeeper Clara only plays a small role but Genevieve Lemon draws out as many laughs as she can with a predominantly physical part. It is easy to believe that she has been connected to the Bliss' for a long time in her dismissal of the crazy antics.
HAY FEVER is a delightful interpretation of Noël Coward's celebration of an absurd bohemian world devoid of the niceties of polite society. Whilst originally capturing a world Coward witnessed in the 1920's, this comedy that plays on manners, the lack thereof, and an incredible level of self-absorption also serves as a mirror on an increasingly narcissistic modern society.
Sydney Theatre Company's production of HAY FEVER is a magnificent expression of Noël Coward's comic genius. This is an easy and enjoyable night out with layers to allow contemplation for those that like depth and meaning, whilst still being straightforward and intriguing for those that need some frivolous escapism.
The Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
11 April - 21 March 2016