Set in the country house of the Bliss family, Hay Fever is a comedy of bad manners and terribly bad behaviour, laced with Noël Coward’s cutting wit, set over a weekend from hell. In the cavernous Theatre Royal Haymarket, a strong cast is headed up by Dame Judi Dench as Judith Bliss.
Theatrical has-been Judith has not been taking to early retirement well and is hankering after a return to the stage as she’s had enough of her family. The play starts off with the family inviting various guests to stay for the weekend: Judith invites a fan, her husband has a ‘muse’ coming to visit and her son and daughter also invite a friend to stay, only trouble is, no-one has told anyone else they’re inviting anyone.
Dench is very much playing against type here, in the kind of flouncy actress role we all know (or at least hope) she is not, and as a result so much of her performance is all the richer for being so unexpected. Dench as drama queen is great fun to watch and it is a vein I’d like to see her explore more. I particularly liked Belinda Lang and Peter Bowles’ performances, but as the son and daughter of the Bliss family, I found Dan Stevens and Kim Medcalf to be misguided in their choices, in particular Stevens’ hamming it up proved to be most wearing.
The way in which the mismatched couples interact with each other and then reconnect in different configurations as they each look for someone slightly better suited to them is a farcical delight and it is Coward’s witticisms that drive this play forward to its fitting ending with the realisation that no matter how annoying they are, family connections are usually the strongest. It is a classy vehicle for a classy actress and in that respect, Dench does not disappoint.