A family of eccentrics living life à la bohème and an unsuspecting gaggle of guests all mixed together in a country estate, what could go wrong? Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy of bad manners has been brought to life by the Sydney Theatre Company this season as they wipe away the cobwebs on this production and bring it out for a good spring cleaning. One of his self-professed lighter works, Hay Fever is a fabulously flippant three act play, which perceptively and playfully pokes at the Victorian issues of class and, of course, sex. Completely unencumbered by convention, the Blisses wreak havoc with their haphazard hospitality and come to remind us that there is some dysfunction found in every family, although not often quite this much...
It seems that anyone who is anyone is at the Bliss country estate this weekend, although the family find themselves blissfully unaware of each other's guests until the last minute (but that's nothing new). Everyone is wrangling for resident rights to the Japanese room. Judith Bliss, the delightfully dramatic mother of this fickle family, wants it for Sandy the smitten sportsman whom she has brought down from London. Her daughter Sorel has invited her new aged interest, Richard the dull diplomatist. Whereas her snarky sibling Simon has invited his cougar of a companion Myra, with whom he appears utterly infatuated despite the years between them. Rounding out the family invitations is their novelist father David, who has asked the timid Jackie down for the purposes of *ahem* research. It appears that torrid trysts are the pastime du jour in this Berkshire abode and the seduction bell tolls, but not for whom we expect.
Of those acting these charismatic characters, the standout performance goes to Heather Mitchell as the theatrical Judith Bliss. She ever so adroitly captures the impossible-to-put-out flame of a retired actress who could never really retire. She shares this flair for the dramatic with her two grown up children Sorel and Simon. Harriet Dyer plays a modern and blasé Sorel who swans about as the perpetually bored pretty young thing. On the other hand, although Simon may be unwashed, Tom Conroy delivers an altogether sparklingly snarky portrayal of the self-obsessed artist. Tony Llewellyn-Jones is the last of the Bliss family, but by no means least, as he impresses as the sparring spouse. Of the guests present at the Bliss abode, the standout was Briallen Clarke, who delivers a convincingly unconvinced Jackie Coryton. On the other hand, while STC favourite Josh McConville produces a strong, love-struck Sandy Tyrell, we found Genevieve Lemon less than loveable as the rather-too-caricature Clara. Even amongst such colourful characters, Clara seemed to us to be far more cartoonish than the crazy but accessibly real family.
This was the first chink in the armour that signalled that it isn't all bohemian blisses and country kisses for this production, as one would be remiss to dismiss the various factors that are amiss here. If any moment felt truly jarring in this performance, it would have to be the decision to replace Judith's piano number with her lip-sync rendition of an Amy Winehouse classic. One pauses to ponder this decision in the otherwise deft direction of Imara Savage, but this can be fast forgiven. What is less swiftly excused are the various changes and closed curtain switches that seemed to move at a glacial pace, forcing moments to lose their momentum. This gave the performance an unpolished feel and left the audience wondering whether something had gone awry.
All in all, we warm to the Bliss family as the black sheep of Victorian society. We recognise that while they all attempt to outshine each other with their various flights of fancy (for they all love the spotlight), they love each other for being exactly who they are; dramatic to the last drop. Producing such a fresh evening of laughs, who could be allergic to such a playful production?