People assume that to play Noel Coward’s comedies you need good deportment, better breeding and perfect manners. Those certainly help, but the essential quality an actor requires is breath control. Coward’s language makes almost Shakespearean demands of thesps, who must be able to play the rhythm of long, perfectly crafted lines in which not one syllable is misplaced. It’s no wonder that veteran Shakespearean Judi Dench delivers a master-class performance as the aptly named Judith Bliss in Peter Hall’s revival of “Hay Fever,” Coward’s 1925 comedy of deliciously bad manners.
She turns sentences into comedy time bombs. Although the play glitters with lines that are gifts for a comedian of her caliber, it’s what Dench does with a pause that distinguishes her art. Affronted by the temerity of her daughter Sorel’s suggestion that her actress mother shouldn’t “go flaunting about with young men,” Dench’ Judith knocks her back with a whiplash retort. “I’ve been morally an extremely nice woman all my life,” she snorts, holding up the line to allow its full preposterousness to raise a big laugh. Her eyes dart and she drops in the airy, killer finish: “More or less.”
Dench excels at revealing layers of humanity and puncturing pomposity. Even her Oscar-winning turn as Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” was all about the comedic contrast between the surface grandeur of a monarch and the wicked gleam of her plain-dealing woman beneath.
And when it comes to layers, Judith has plenty.
One minute she’s grand lady of the manor, all Napoleonic gardening hat and galoshes; the next, the ego has landed. She revels in being the happily and gloriously narcissistic star, then she’s off playing the adoring mother of her two impossibly arch children who, one line later, irritate her beyond endurance.
The action of the play is set amid a weekend in the country, where all four family members — Judith, husband David (Peter Bowles), daughter Sorel (Kim Medcalf) and son Simon (Dan Stevens) — have coincidentally invited their own latest love interests to stay. Over what becomes the house party from hell, it’s hard to know whom Dench toys with and seduces the most.
Is it sporty and infatuated young Sandy Tyrell (suitably handsome Charles Edwards)? Or her daughter’s current infatuation, stuffed-shirt diplomat Richard Greatham (solid William Chubb)? Ultimately, she reduces the audience to gales of laughter as she actually skips oh-so-artlessly to the piano to illustrate her insouciant charm.
Unfortunately, little else in the production is on the same level, with the fault lying squarely at the feet of director Hall. He makes a rod for his own back by casting Dench. She guarantees box office, but she’s 71 and has to refer to her daughter as a “vigorous ingenue of 19.” Worse, Dench looks younger offstage than onstage thanks to an unflattering red wig and the aging, pale tones of Simon Higlett’s otherwise sophisticated ’20s costumes.
Hall ages other characters up to ease the difference. Thus Simon’s latest love, Myra (a slightly strangulated Belinda Lang), now oddly becomes a middle-aged woman. When Judith refers to her as a man-eating vampire, it should be amusingly absurd; here it seems rather accurate.
Aside from Stevens as an amusingly bumptious Simon and a seriously aloof Bowles as his father, the perfs are off-key and fail to mesh. Medcalf’s Sorel barks and slogs away at her lines like Eliza Doolittle failing to convince as a lady. Lean and smart, Edwards is wholly miscast as a sweet, dumb boxer. His best moment comes in the silent morning-after-the-night-before routine as he recoils in horror at the sight of something unspeakable beneath a silver breakfast dish.
That reliance on gags off the text is epitomized by the scene in which housekeeper Clara lays the table. Humming away to herself, she slips into singing the whole of “Tea for Two.”
“Nobody near us/to see or to hear us/No friends or relations/on weekend vacations,” sings Lin Blakley, relishing her moment, her strong voice winning a round of applause. Yet interpolating that song — not one of Coward’s, it’s from “No No Nanette,” which opened the same year as “Hay Fever” — is a sign of defeat. A play as good as this shouldn’t need that kind of assist.
Dench is unfortunately caught up in an effortful production of fits and starts that fails to deliver the play’s easeful, sustained comic brilliance.