“I was relieved when the third act finally finished’. Noel Coward’s great comedy was not in capable hands, writes HANNAH MIRSKY.
Pembroke New Cellars, 7pm, Tues 20th – Sat 24th November
Dir: Jack Heywood, Jake Wood
I thought this play was over at the end of the second act. When I realised there was a third, my heart sank. Hay Fever is about an overly theatrical family – the Blisses – whose perpetual melodramas prove exasperating, and sometimes frightening, for their bewildered guests. I certainly sympathised with the guests: the audience too was subjected to unnecessary theatrics.
A bit of overacting can be funny, particularly in a light-hearted Noel Coward comedy. However, the trouble with this production is that the actors who are overacting are playing actors who love to overact. (Congratulations on getting through that sentence.) The performers are playing a family prone to theatrics, and what they don’t seem to realise is that this actually requires quite a fine-tuned performance. You should be able to tell when it’s the character hamming it up, as opposed to the actor. You can’t. With the Blisses, everything is ramped up to its highest intensity all the time, to the point where the high-pitched exclamations of Freya Mead, playing Mrs Bliss, were beginning to set my teeth on edge. These actors certainly put energy into their performances, and it works well when, for example, the characters are reciting the lines of a West End melodrama. But, for the most part, their performances feel unnuanced and simply relentless.
This is not to say that there are no enjoyable moments in the entire production. Some come from the Blisses – the moment at which the daughter tells her mother to ‘be natural for a minute’ seems pertinent – but often it is the more understated comedy of the guests that gets the laughs. Archie Lodge and Steph Spreadborough as an upright middle-aged man and a rather nervous girl engage in some delightfully awkward small talk at one point – there’s a lot of self-conscious silence-breaking with comments on the weather. It’s instantly recognisable. Even though this is one of the funniest moments of the play, however, it feels a little out of place amongst the high drama that surounds it, betraying, unfortunately, the inconsistent tone of the production.
Hay Fever is a bad play – patchy in tone, with unsubtle performances – that has a good play trapped inside it. If only the actors had varied the style of their performances a little more, or the directors had chosen to play up the social awkwardness, this could have been a rather enjoyable evening. As it was however, I was relieved when the third act finally finished.