Hay Fever

Ingrid Craigie and Stephen Swift in 'Hay Fever' by Noel Coward. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Ingrid Craigie and Stephen Swift in 'Hay Fever' by Noel Coward. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Stephen Swift and Kathy Rose O'Brien in 'Hay Fever' by Noel Coward. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Stephen Swift and Kathy Rose O'Brien in 'Hay Fever' by Noel Coward. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis in its medical parlance, is a reaction brought on by the ingestion of dust or pollen, matter that is barely visible but everpresent in the world. Noël Coward's play of the same name features the Bliss family, also susceptible to wild fits in response to obscure elements all around them - but instead of coughing or sneezing, the family suffers an unusual and incurable comic madness.

In the Gate Theatre's assured production of this capricious romp, a large lurid drawing of a buxom woman supine on a couch is superimposed upon the curtain. When housemaid Clara (Barbara Brennan) pulls it open to reveal a cluttered parlour, we seem to be placed in a very familiar corner of upper England. Twenty-something Sorel Bliss (Beth Cooke), reclining on her day bed, scornfully reads aloud the bad poetry of her recently-married friend to her brother Simon (Marty Rea), who is hard at work at a nude drawing. Yet the young Blisses are not stodgy scions of English aristocratsPhoto: Pat Redmond, but instead flighty members of an aspirant bohemian class. At the play's onset, their mother Judith (Ingrid Craigie), a retired actress, is elsewhere learning the names of flowers, while their father David (Stephen Brennan) is preoccupied with his latest novel. Newspapers are stacked beneath the day beds, but the affairs of the world are, and remain throughout, a trifling concern. The Bliss family is too caught up in acting out their own elaborate drama.

With a summer weekend looming, each Bliss has invited a guest to Cookham, the family house, without consulting the rest of the family. Rather than invent an intricate plot for this benignly scathing send-up of bohemian family life, Coward is happy to simply unleash this self-absorbed family, seemingly ignorant of every common courtesy, upon these four upstanding members of society. What ensues is entirely satisfying if not quite sustaining.

First produced in 1925, Coward's play favours whimsy over philosophical conjecture and the Gate's production adds a touch of grandeur to the on-stage hilarity. Craigie is utterly majestic as Judith, the wilting stage queen ever eager to turn a small encounter into an epic standoff. She is so resplendent in the second act that one begins to wonder if Judith, the mercurial actress, does in fact possess greatness. Stephen Brennan brings subtle humour to David Bliss's disgruntled disinterest in his own family, while Rea is at his best when he is at his battiest, especially when roaring rejoinders across the stage. Cooke provides an able performance as Sorel, the only Bliss with the desire to improve her manners, though she sometimes suffered in the shadow of Craigie's immense performance. Wearing her frustration with her employers right on her sleeve, Barbara Brennan is excellent as the Bliss’ often shell-shocked housemaid.

Photo: Pat RedmondNone of the outsiders are a match for this “divinely mad family”, but as “diplomatist” Richard Greatham, Mark O'Halloran best conveys the disquiet that the Blisses inspire. His failed flirtation with Judith in the second act, especially when asked to “act attentive” as Craigie performs a Parisian lament on the piano, is the production's stand-out scene. “Is this a game?” he later asks, as if he needed an answer. Both doltish sportsman Sandy Tyrell (Stephen Swift) and flapper and prospective muse Jackie Coryton (Kathy Rose O'Brien) are out of their depth when pitted against the intellects of their hosts, and even Myra Arundel (Jade Yourell) discovers that anger is no shield for their advances.

There is hardly a single overtone to contemporary life to be found in Hay Fever, and director Patrick Mason displays no interest in inventing a link to these uncertain times. Controlling the chaotic Bliss family is enough, and his direction deftly captures – both in small gestures and strange outbursts like the hilariously overwrought and overacted play-within-a-play Love's Whirlwind – the oddity of this clan. Michael Pavelka's set, particularly its curtain and beautiful backdrop featuring a close-up on a woman's face, helps expand Coward's critique of an affluent bohemia that finds social purpose instead of deeper meaning in the arts. The piano placed at the back of the stage is used by a few of the characters but Denis Clohessy's sound design also includes unaccompanied performances, like Clara's rendition of 'Tea For Two' as she sets the table for breakfast. Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh's costumes – especially the magnificent emerald frock that Craigie wears at the dinner party - evoke the airy opulence of high society between the World Wars.

Although Coward based Hay Fever on his experiences within Jazz Age New York, this light comedy could not feel more English, and seems written with the nostalgic days of late summer in mind. Coward gives us few reasons to care about this family, but there is escapist entertainment to be found in their travails. The Blisses dare to scorn the manners of their visitors for sneaking away from Cookham near the play's finale, but their disappointment does not last long. Their leaving simply closes the curtains on another small act in the endless domestic farce that is Bliss family life.

Donald Mahoney is a writer and journalist currently based in Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Hay Fever by Noel Coward

2 Aug - 24 Sept, 2011

Produced by The Gate Theatre
In The Gate Theatre

Directed by Patrick Mason

Set Design: Michael Pavelka

Costume Design: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh

Lighting Design: Jim McConnell

Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

With: Ingrid Craigie, Stephen Brennan, Marty Rea, Beth Cooke, Stephen Swift, Jade Yourell, Kathy-Rose O’Brien, Mark O’Halloran, Barbara Brennan