Review: Hay Fever (Theatre Royal, Brighton) JohnnyFox September 26, 2014 Reviews, Theatre My first thoughts on seeing the audience shuffling in to the Theatre Royal Brighton for a Thursday matinee were – ‘if there’s a fire, we’re all toast: most of this lot are old enough to have known Noel Coward personally. Or his dad.’ Thoughts of age are inescapable: apart from anything else, today is leading lady Felicity Kendal’s 68th birthday and the collective gasps of ‘she doesn’t look it’ come in equal measures of envy from the cardiganed women and long-remembered ‘Good Life’ lust from the gents. This is a play I know extremely well. My own production (“one of the best the Nuffield Theatre has housed” – Guardian) formed part of my Theatre Studies degree at Lancaster in 1973, the year Noel Coward died. I have seen every major revival, and some dodgy tours, from the splendid Dulcie Gray and Michael Denison version which first inspired me as a teenager at the Grand Theatre Leeds, to the glossy London and Chichester productions with Dame Judi, Maria Aitken, Penelope Keith, Geraldine McEwan and Diana Rigg. And the awful one with Lindsay Duncan strutting about in jodhpurs. And Phyllis Calvert in York. The plot is simple – retired actress Judith, her chick-lit novelist husband and twin children live a bohemian life in some comfort in Berkshire. Each invites a guest from London for the weekend without telling the others and in a succession of humiliating games and in-joke play-acting contrives to alienate all of them until they leave without a polite farewell. Ninety years on, it’s still Coward’s finest comedy: very short, very crisp, there is no redundant material and it has some stonking parts for everyone from the squeaky ingenue to the mature actress for whom Judith Bliss is a total gift. Having said that, of course, everyone must take their lead from the lead and in this instance Felicity Kendal is occasionally overacting even when Judith is not, which is unfortunate – in fact she is at her most simperingly artificial at the curtain call. Regrettably, this means that Simon Shepherd has also been goaded into overdoing it even though he’s playing the most naturalistic of the four family members, and his seduction scene with society vamp Myra Arundel (Sara Stewart in a fright wig) lacks conviction as a result. The kids are well-cast, although Alice Orr-Ewing as Sorel has definitely studied Phoebe Waller Bridge who played it so finely in the Lindsay Duncan iteration but Edward Franklin as Simon sounds too modern to pass for a convincing flannelled fool. This is a generalised fault: Kendal varies Judith’s bright skittishness with an undertow of frustrated vehemence using a growling chest voice which sounds simply too sitcom modern, and both Shepherd and Stewart need tighter direction to toe the twenties line which could more perfectly fit the dialogue. Maybe director Lindsay Posner is too busy wrangling a performance out of Lindsay Lohan, precariously opening this week in Speed-the-Plow, to pop in and tighten it up? Michael Simkins as the hapless ‘diplomatist’ and James Corrigan as the over-hearty trainee boxer besotted with Judith are much more on the money. It’s traditional to cast a good comic actress in the role of Clara, Judith’s former dresser now turned maid – this is the role which launched the career of Imelda Staunton (and, yes, I saw that 1976 production at the Watermill in Newbury too) but Mossie Smith fudges the opportunity somewhat by giving us a rather pedestrian charlady. The set by Peter McKintosh is fantastic, a beautiful Voysey-esque Arts and Crafts house of which Noël would have approved, and the costumes are an explosion of handkerchief hemlines. It’s good, but it’s not West End ready.