Written by Noel Coward
Directed by Alisa Palmer
June 19-October 11
Approximate running time: 2 hours and five minutes (with one 15-minute interval)
Contact: Toll-free: 1.800.567.1600
STRATFORD – When the curtain rose for the opening act of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, it was obvious from the thunderous audience applause that Lucy Peacock might be sharing the spotlight for the remainder of the production.
Not necessarily with an actor, though the company was certainly up to the task, but rather to Douglas Paraschuk and his wonderfully cluttered set, with numerous art works strewn about the walls, knick-knacks littering the living space and all those carefully studied but untidy symbols of a well-to-do family steeped in their ridiculous bohemian artistic pretensions.
What a shambles but what a glorious way in which to introduce the truly eccentric Bliss family, their disorderly and high inappropriate of treating – or more to the point – mistreating their guests, their utter disdain for normalcy and convention and their complete lack of understanding of other seemingly normal folks that have the misfortune to spend time with this bizarre clan.
More of a cross between farce and a standard comedy of manners with a touch of theatre of the absurd, the three-act production takes place in the cavernous hall of the Bliss family home. Judith (Lucy Peacock), an on-again, off-action stage actress considering a theatrical return is all wild gesticulations, grandiose theatric statements and an equally odd desire to tirelessly flirt with young men.
Husband David (Kevin Bundy), a rather self-absorbed novelist and the creator of literary works not worth the paper on which his empty flowery phrases appear, like his wife simply doesn’t understand the norms of society – polite or otherwise.
Their culture-vulture son Simon’s (Tyrone Savage) greatest achievement appears to be sketching dreadful looking nudes, whilst lying about on the floor. Daughter Sorel (Ruby Joy) may be the most sensible one of the lot but judging by the standards set by the rest of the family, this is not saying much in her favour.
Entering into the foray are four guests – actually victims – invited individually by different family members for what appears to be an elaborate parlour game at their expense for the amusement of the hosts.
Sandy Tyrell (Gareth Potter), a young boxer and the attention of Judith’s theatric flirtations, is joined by Cynthia Dale’s wonderfully played socialite Myra Arundel; an innocent and confused flapper Jackie Coryton (Ijeoma Emesowum) and a stiffer-than-stiff diplomatist Richard Greatham (Sanjay Talwar).
Overseeing this motley crew is the ever-smoking, wisecracking working-class maid Clara (Sarah Orenstein) who, apparently because of class distinction, doesn’t deserve a last name. Without question, she symbolizes what sanity and common sense there is to find in this other-worldly household.
All cast members, particularly Peacock, Talwar and Potter, simply eat up their roles and, while it is in most cases a criticism, over-act to the max, gobbling up their juicy bits of Coward dialogue, spitting them out with relish at rather ear-piercing levels at times. Chaos in this particular world equals unabated laughter.
Dale does wonders with her meaty role, cast in a part that does not simply require glamour and a lot of posturing. No longer the play’s naïve flirty ingénue, she sinks her teeth into the character, shooting out witticisms and wise cracks at a rapid-fire place.
Peacock, once a well-respected operatic singer gets the chance once again to momentarily show off her still considerably impressive vocal prowess with her rendering of Oscar Straus’ Tout Paris m’a fait, ce soir, un accueil plein de gentillesse, sung with a strange mix of levity and authority.
While the play is still considered to be quintessentially English, many observers including the great Simon Fallow, say the inspiration actually came to Coward while visiting and staying with the actress Laurette Taylor, her husband Hartley Manners and their children in America.
Callow, writing for The Guardian in 2006, points out that their house parties were “notorious for the family’s eccentric behaviour, for the obscure and outlandish games to which the guests were subjected, and for the heady atmosphere of flirtation – much of which was imported wholesale into Hay Fever.”
Whatever the origins, the play is still loud, outrageous and, because pretentious behaviour never ceases to be a great subject to ridicule and laugh about, not the least bit dated.
Thanks to Douglas Paraschuk’s creative set design, it helps validate Coward’s belief that journeys can be taken by characters without having to frantically change scenes. The key here is one standout set and the work of a highly skilled cast, enabled by the sure hand of director Alisa Palmer.
The greatest pleasure audience members may derive from such a frenetically funny outing is that they, unlike the Bliss house guests, are not captive prisoners left to their own devices on how to escape. Laughter reigns supreme here, nabbing a solid four and half out of ***** stars.