“People stare in astonishment when we say the most ordinary things”
In mounting a new production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, the Rose Theatre, Kingston has managed another casting coup after attracting Judi Dench out west earlier this year, although their plans haven’t quite gone according to schedule. Celia Imrie agreed to take on the lead role of Judith Bliss, but subsequent filming commitments meant she can only fulfil half the run, so Nichola McAuliffe will be stepping in for the final two weeks. Still, a very interesting cast under Stephen Unwin’s direction, makes this an intriguing proposition.
Set in the Blisses’ family home in the 1920s, Judith, a recently retired stage actress, David, a self-absorbed novelist, and their two equally unconventional children make for a eccentric family grouping given to melodramatic theatrical excesses. On the weekend we see them, they have each invited someone, unbeknownst to the others, a stuffy diplomat, a shy girl, an athletic boxer and a fashionable sophisticate and the scene is set for comedic chaos as endless scenes and permutations are played out by the Blisses and their unsuspecting house guests.
At the centre of this whirl of theatrical confusion and merriment, Celia Imrie continues to confirm her dame-in-waiting status with a wonderfully de trop performance. Whether its singing a little French ditty at the piano, throwing herself with abandon on the chaise longue or her continual dramatic poses, one never loses sight of the fact that this is a woman who simply cannot stop performing, but Imrie at times also suggests the woman beneath the character, who is genuinely touched by some praise for her work. I sometimes feel I could just watch her read the phone book, but Imrie really does deliver the goods here.
Alexandra Gilbreath is a pure vampy delight as Myra Arundel with a startlingly husky vocal delivery and buckets of sexual chemistry. Her dry chuckles, acerbic witticisms and endless pose-striking (though not quite as extensive as Judith’s), combined with a sleek black bob and flapper dress, left me feeling weak at the knees and disturbingly attracted to her! But good as Imrie and Gilbreath are, they are given a run for their money by Adrian Lukis’ Greatham who is frequently scene-stealingly good. Whether it is his stilted attempts at conversation with Jackie or his physical comedy moves (never has leaning casually against a piano seemed so funny), he is excellent.
Sam Swainsbury is good as Sandy, but ironically given how much he eats in Act III he has lost a bit of weight and as he is playing somewhat against type here as a public schoolboy sort and so he lost a certain amount of the yumminess I have come to associate with him (and I’m allowed to say this as a blogger not a critic!) There’s an impressive professional stage debut from Georgia Maguire as the precocious Sorel, her mannerisms nicely influenced by her mother and Joshua McGuire as a swishy Simon, whose initial impressions and longing glance at Sandy’s posterior rather belies his later ardour for Myra, although given my reaction to Gilbreath and history with Swainsbury, this is utterly understandable to me!
The set is lovely, with a split level aspect allowing for a nice landing leading off to rooms upstairs but it did feel like it could have done with an extra door stage right up top as the attention to detail was so good everywhere apart from this one exit which was just a curtain. It is extremely well-dressed, stuffed full with all sorts of bohemian ephemera, with an emphasis on Japanese trinkets and fans, but the inclusion of a boat out the back seemed a step too far. The view through the window suggested a house right on the river, but with the boat there too and people disappearing through the door to the gardens, the perspective seemed distractingly wrong.
Costumes are largely great but it must be said that there is a disappointing lack of actual silk pyjamas here. There’s lots of silk dressing gowns and a couple of lovely wide-legged trouser suits in silk (Judith’s orange one was my favourite) but none of the pyjamas on display fulfilled the brief, being more cotton-based, I’m sure Mr Coward would turn in his grave!
I really did enjoy this production of Hay Fever, it is full of nice characterisations, excellent performances and some strong delivery of Coward’s bon mots. But at the same time, I couldn’t help a small feeling that there was nothing particularly new on display here, this is familiar territory being retread. But its final moral of the strength of familial bonds is touching as ever and given genuine feeling here and all in all, I do have to say that this Hay Fever is most likely worth the trip to zone 6!