Lindsay Duncan helps blow the dust off Coward's Hay Fever

Feb 29, 2012

Classic Noel Coward comedy from the Twenties joins growing list of West End revivals

What you need to know
Hay Fever, written in 1924, is the first Coward play to appear at the Noel Coward Theatre (formerly the Albery Theatre) since it was renamed. The playwright's first effort, I'll Leave it to You, was staged at the theatre in 1920.
It tells the story of the bohemian but self-absorbed Bliss family, headed by fading stage star Judith Bliss. She, her husband and children each invite a guest to their house to spice up their lives without telling the others, resulting in mayhem and embarrassment.  
It's directed by Howard Davies and stars Olivier Award-winning actress Lindsay Duncan as Judith (the duo worked together previously on Coward's Private Lives). Kevin McNally (The Pirates of the Caribbean) plays Judith's husband and Jeremy Northam (Gosford Park) her spellbound admirer. Freddy Fox (son of Edward) is Judith's son.

What the critics like
Davies's superbly funny, sharply observant staging makes this production irresistible, says Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph. Like an Oscar Wilde play, it "transforms triviality into comic perfection". Davies "blows the dust off" the play and makes it seem fresh, startling and amusing. "Though firmly set in period, it never feels dated."
Lindsay Duncan's Judith Bliss is sublime, says Michael Billington in The Guardian. Duncan plays her not just as "a rusticating West End star", but as a woman who toys with her visitors to annoy her husband and confirm her sexual allure. There is also "a peach of a performance" from Jeremy Northam as a buttoned-up diplomat "quivering with shy lust".
It's a masterly revival by Davies and his cast, says Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail. "The ticket prices are not to be sneezed at, but this is one fever worth catching."
What they don't like
This story of self-absorbed bohemian poshos stands up poorly next to current West End blockbusters, says Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out. The talk of open marriages and lax morals was undoubtedly subversive in its time, but in 2012 the unruly Bliss family "don't seem to challenge the status quo so much as to embody the frivolous titting about of the one per cent".

Some of the casting decisions are quirky, says Henry Hitchins in the Evening Standard. Olivia Colman's abundant skills are under-used as fading seductress Myra and Kevin McNally's performance as David is assured but "appears as if it belongs in a different play".

Why this? Why now? asks Zoe Craig on As a piece of pure fun for people willing to shell out between £30 and £50 for a night at the theatre, it's perfect. But it's hard to find anything "vital" in it. With so many quality revivals in London at the moment, it's difficult to call it a "must-see".

Sign up for our daily newsletter