Transcripts

17 April 2009: The Guardian

Hay Fever

Coward's Hay Fever, like the allergy, is always with us. Even in a perfectly decent, if unexceptional, version such as Nikolai Foster's at Chichester, it continues to delight. Why does this seemingly slight play exercise such a grip?

I suspect the answer lies in Coward's ambivalence towards his subject. All he shows us is the theatrical family Bliss behaving towards their guests with disdainful rudeness during a wet weekend in Cookham. But Coward is appalled by, and secretly in love with, the outrageous selfishness of the bohemian talentocracy. As the son of a Teddington piano salesman, Coward was lower middle-class and yearned to be part of the new celebrity culture. When he wrote the play in 1924, he was on the verge of achieving his aim. The Blisses may be monsters - but to Coward, they are sacred monsters.

But is Diana Rigg, as Judith Bliss, monstrous enough? She captures the sense of Judith as a queen of the greasepaint jungle miscast as a rural hostess: there is genuine vehemence behind her cry: "I won't stagnate as long as there's breath in my body." There is, however, a residual sanity about Rigg that prevents her being a transcendent Bliss.

If the production has a fault, it is that it elevates funny business over Coward's priceless words: asked to lean on the piano in an "attentive attitude", Guy Henry's diplomat doesn't have to strike a grotesquely angular pose. Some of the best performances, in fact, come from the younger members of the cast. Natalie Walter is deliciously amusing as a gauche flapper in a state of constant panic. Edward Bennett, latterly the RSC's stand-in Hamlet, bounces around with great aplomb as a nervy visitor in plus-fours. And Sam Alexander and Laura Rogers as the appalling Bliss children are like egos on sticks. As always, the play works. Though the final image is of the guests gratefully tiptoeing away, you feel Coward's heart remains with the hosts from hell.


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