In the second act of Noel Coward’s weekend-in-the-country comedy “Hay Fever,” Judith (Lindsay Duncan), her family and a gaggle of deliciously ill-matched houseguests attempt a parlor game. Exasperated Judith exclaims, “It’s so frightfully easy, and nobody can do it right.” That, essentially, is what might be called the Coward conundrum: this style of comedy must look effortless but it’s extraordinarily hard to get right. Not that you would know it from Howard Davies’ scintillating production. What’s wrong with it? Nothing.
It helps that Davies and Duncan have form in this area. Duncan, the high priestess of droll, won the Olivier and the Tony for her Amanda in Davies’s production of Coward’s “Private Lives.” That production shone with the understanding that sincere emotions course beneath Coward’s shimmering surface. Written five years earlier, “Hay Fever” has less pain and depth but there more to it than merely a ridiculously entertaining display of deplorable manners.
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That much is uncovered by Davies’s actors in the most seemingly innocuous of exchanges.
“Do you think they have tea?” worries sweetly vacuous Jackie (Amy Morgan) of her dismayingly off-hand hosts. “Oh yes,” consoles Jeremy Northam’s touchingly straight-up-and-down diplomat Richard, but that’s not the end of his line. He finds and fills a pause with sheer agony before breathing a terrified, “They must.”
The legible horror that grips the two of them — might these savages not even serve them tea? — plus the roar of laughter that greets it, illustrates the ability of the entire cast not only to play Coward’s text, but to reveal the subtext. Davies’, however, allows audiences to sense the latter rather than underlining it with mugging or exaggeration.
It’s hardly news to spot that 40 years ahead of Edward Albee, this play is an extended bout of “Get the Guests” from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That’s what passes for the plot in which, unkeknownst to one another, every member of the wildly artistic Bliss family has invited an object of their desire down for the weekend. Each of them turns up, intent upon a little not-so-innocent fun, only to be devoured.
That all is not quite as expected is clear from the moment Bunny Christie’s witty dustsheet of a curtain rises on the Bliss family’s country retreat. Sorel (gauche yet beautifully controlled Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is revealed draped in a sheet, posing for her brother Simon (ideally over-energised Freddie Fox) who is painting her. Not only does the set, strewn with canvases, show how the house has been turned over to the spoilt children’s whims, the composition allows us to sense how close – knit the squabbling family is.
By the time everyone has gathered together, the strength of the casting is clear. A shared rhythm, physical and vocal, makes both the grown-up children and their parents into an unusually convincing family. Like Oscar Wilde’s writing, Coward’s perfectly poised long lines are utterly dependent on rhythm. Without stage breath-control, the jokes don’t land. These actors time the gags to perfection.
A thunderous Jenny Galloway wrings laughs out of dresser-turned unwilling housekeeper Clara, As Myra, Olivia Colman allows her dashing high-fashion black and pale pink costume to do her vampish work. Freed from needing to prove her sexual power, she is extremely funny as the chief baiter of their hostess.
Playing too-soon-retired actress Judith who spends the weekend rehearsing her comeback, Lindsay Duncan is lethally funny. Striding around in preposterous jodhpurs or working her evening-wear that droops for days, she relishes and polishes her every moment. Whether arranging flowers (badly) or her menfolk (brilliantly) she never loses her grip on the audience who spend the evening in the palm of her wafting hand.
Ensemble playing of this quality will run as long as the cast are willing. The presence of U.S. producers signals the production as likely to be Broadway-bound. Gotham hasn’t seen “Hay Fever” in 26 years. It has been worth the wait.