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Thursday, 3 July 2014

Review: Hay Fever - Just Shy of Fever-Pitch

Cast of Hay Fever. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Hay Fever
by Noel Coward
Directed by Alisa Palmer
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk and Dana Osborne

The Story: Oft-retired stage diva Judith Bliss has invited a young admirer down to her home in the English countryside for the weekend. This would be fine if her husband, daughter and son had not also invited a guest for the weekend, a confusion only enhanced by the family's utter lack of consideration for anyone else.

The story is funnier than it sounds - it is a Noel Coward play, after all, not Pinter. Coward is said to have written it in a kind of fever himself, basing it on the antics he witnessed at similar weekend gatherings at the home of American actress Laurette Taylor. However, the Stratford Festival's production does not quite reach such a fevered pitch - but not for lack of trying.

The first round of gasps and applause goes to designers Douglas Paraschuk for a truly lovely English country home that looks ripped from the pages of Britain Magazine, and a similar gasp in praise of costume designer Dana Osborne is heard when Ruby Joy (playing daughter Sorrel Bliss) stands in the second act to reveal a dress that would make Jean Patou jealous. No doubt about it, the glamour of the 1920's is present in spades.

Lucy Peacock as Judith Bliss
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Director Alisa Palmer makes her Stratford debut by issuing one command: "Release the Peacock!"  Meaning she obviously trusts her leading lady, Lucy Peacock, to use her formidable skills to create one doozy of a diva in Judith Bliss. Personally, I like watching an actress enjoying herself on stage this much, particularly that gleeful, almost demonic gleam in Ms. Peacock's eye when Judith scents drama in the air - even if the drama is of her own making. 

However she might trust Ms. Peacock, however, Ms. Palmer seems not to trust Noel Coward. She has overused some physical comedy which oddly detracts from the situational and textual comedy - such as everyone constantly being surprised as they sit on books that litter the furniture, and everyone constantly slipping on the same step of the grand staircase. Well, not everyone. All the guests sit awkwardly on books and fall up and down on the step, while the family of Blisses blissfully forgets to warn them. Every. Single. Time. 

Which is a sort of brilliant way to underline how very self-absorbed these Blisses are. It is unfortunate that the audience is pulled out of the play for each of these moments, waiting to see to whom and how each slip will occur, but one can understand why Ms. Palmer may have chosen to give bruises in this fashion to all the actors playing guests.

L-R: Gareth Potter as SandyTyrell, Lucy Peacock as Judith Bliss,
Ruby Joy as Sorrel Bliss. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Ruby Joy plays Sorrel Bliss, perhaps the one character towards whom one can feel something approaching sympathy. Sorrel is very aware her family is eccentric and narcissistic, and appears to want to change. It is Sorrel who reveals to one very confused house-guest that he cannot take anything the family says very seriously, and Ms. Joy exudes a natural gravity which grounds this part of her character. It is a treat, then, to see Ms. Joy take her character into full-tantrum mode, as Sorrel is sucked back into the family's functional dysfunction.

The rest of the cast hold up their ends, too - particularly Gareth Potter as the boyishly charming Sandy, and Sanjay Talwar as the cool (and mostly collected) diplomat Richard; and Cynthia Dale pulls double duty as the slinky minx Myra, and also manages a superbly graceful recovery from her pratfall on the dreaded step of doom.

It strikes me as I review my notes that by presenting Hay Fever along with Crazy for You and Man of La Mancha, the Stratford Festival declared an unintentional theme in their season - a love for, and the transformative power of theatre. In each case, the process of making theatre or believing in it and in its power forms the basis for each plot, and informs the characters lives. No wonder why, despite it falling short of some expectations, I found myself booking tickets to see Hay Fever again.

Hay Fever continues in repertory until October 11 at the Avon Theatre.

The Bliss Family L-R: Ruby Joy as Sorrel, Tyrone Savage as Simon,
Lucy Peacock as Judith and Kevin Bundy as David.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


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