Hay Fever: a theatre review by Deb Meyer

April 20, 2016 by Deb Meyer
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There’s something terribly refreshing about a well written comedy, especially when it’s revived by a wonderful cast and given playful direction and a creative design team…writes Deb Meyer.

This new STC production at Sydney’s Opera House brings an energy and vitality that Noel Coward would no doubt enjoy. Featuring the Bliss family in their bohemian glory, the production brings out the eccentric and mad world they live in, with their anti-establishment mores, ill-mannered tact and heightened sense of drama.

Heather Mitchell and Tony Llewellyn-Jones in Hay Fever Photo: James Green

Heather Mitchell and Tony Llewellyn-Jones in Hay Fever Photo: James Green

Considered to be Coward’s first masterpiece, the play depicts Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell) – a once celebrated stage diva, her novelist husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), their painter son Simon (Tom Conroy) and soulful daughter Sorel (Harriet Dyer). When each of them invites a guest to spice up a weekend in the country – without telling the others – the unsuspecting visitors are in for some playful, tumultuous, partner-swapping chaos.

Coward’s love of language and theatricality translates well to a modern-day audience, with this production of the play (written in 1925) set in a contemporary, bohemian living room, replete with tropical plants, hanging ferns, old wooden furniture, peeling wallpaper and a bathtub filled with pillows, on which much of the action in the first act takes place. Set design by Alicia Clements is delightfully detailed.

Director Imara Savage (STC’s After Dinner) brings out great playfulness and fun in the production and skilfully highlights the contrast of characters in Coward’s play. There’s Sorel’s conservative friend Richard (Alan Dukes), Simon’s elegant and uptight love interest Myrna (Helen Thompson), Sandy the youthful and rather simple athlete (Josh McConville), whom Judith wistfully seduces, and the painfully shy and awkward Jackie (Briallen Clarke) whom David has invited to assist with his novel. They’re all wonderfully mismatched characters, who, along with Clara, the unappreciated and overworked maid (Genevieve Lemon), make for some uproarious laughs.

In this comedy of manners, the grown Bliss children remind us frequently of their peculiar and unrestrained upbringing, highlighting their parents’ outrageous and eccentric behaviour. In particular, Judith’s hunger for excitement and adulation, whilst on the verge of a nervous breakdown, create a discord in the home, both with and without the additional straight-laced guests.

The four newcomers clue in to the strangeness of the family early on, with particular tension and melodrama surrounding the charades-like game of Adverbs after dinner (where a person steps outside the room while the others decide on an adverb that the person must guess once they’ve returned).  It’s a wonderfully funny and silly scene, played with great theatricality and skill by the whole cast. Flirtatious liaisons with unsuspecting visitors ensues, after which Judith and her children suddenly break into role, reprising scenes from the play Love’s Whirlwind, one of Judith’s greatest earlier performances, much to the confusion and horror of the guests.

Heather Mitchell leads this exceptional ensemble, brimming with a diva’s heightened physicality and vocal tenacity. She is superbly cast, balancing Judith’s unquenchable appetite for melodrama and attention with a vulnerability and sadness, bringing great energy to the stage in a role that is both demanding and deliciously fun.

As the adult children, Tom Conroy has a colourful and playful presence as the bickering Mummy’s boy, Simon. Harriet Dyer brings a darker shade to Sorel’s character, delivering some of the play’s best lines with a strident sexuality. Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Judith’s more reserved husband – among the loquaciousness of his family, brings an assured strength in a role in which he’s perfectly cast.

As the maid, Genevieve Lemon displays her comic brilliance with every entrance. Helen Thompson is wonderfully cast as the glamorous and confident Myrna, caught in a bizarre love triangle, as is Alan Dukes as the prim and proper diplomat yearning for some excitement. Josh McConville and Briallen Clarke too play their quirky roles with perfect precision.

Beneath the fun and playful sense of chaos, sadness bubbles to the surface. Sorel’s words “none of us mean anything we say” is ironically truthful as the Bliss family engage in role-playing, with themselves and others, through life. Melodrama and artistic ambition is their drug, without which life would not be worth living. All at once dysfunctional and disturbing, but for Coward and this skilful ensemble of artists, fodder for great humour and hilarity.

 

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Hay Fever by Noel Coward

Produced by the Sydney Theatre Company

Performed at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Directed by Imara Savage

Designed by Alicia Clements

Lighting by Trent Suidgeest

Composition and Sound Design by Max Lyandvert

Cast: Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Alan Dukes, Harriet Dyer, Genevieve Lemon, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell, Helen Thomson

Box Office: 02 9250 1777. www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Tickets from $64 (fees apply)

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