REVIEW: Hay Fever at the Mill at Sonning






It’s nearly 100 years since Noel Coward’s farcical comedy about the eccentric Bliss Family was first staged in the West End and it seems appropriate to mount a new production at the lovely Mill at Sonning in Berkshire just 12 miles from Cookham where the play is set. Yet the play is something of a curiosity of the period filled with theatrical games played by the self-centred egotistical family. Its artificiality may have amused us 100 years ago but now it all seems a little tiresome and we never care for any of the characters or are particularly amused by their affected behaviour. It does not have the exquisite wit and banter of his 1930 play Private Lives, the spectacle of the 1931 extravaganza Cavalcade, the beauty and romance of his 1936 play Still Life (so delightfully revived at the Mill at Sonning recently), the comical self-parody of the 1942 Present Laughter or even the wonderful characters of the 1941 Blithe Spirit. 

Perhaps students of Coward’s extensive legacy of plays and music will see in this earlier play elements that he would later develop in his work. It is easy to see why Critics often gave mixed reviews when his new plays opened but also to recognise the enduring impact he had on Theatre. Therefore, if you have not seen the play before it is worth a trip down to Berkshire to catch it and reflect on why the central character Judith has been played over the years by such as Edith Evans, Celia Johnson, Penelope Keith, Maria Aitken, Geraldine McEwan, Judi Dench, Stephanie Beacham, Lindsay Duncan, Googie Withers, Dora Bryan, Celia Imrie, Nichola McAuliffe and Felicity Kendal. This is a phenomenal roll call and suggests it’s a part that the best female actresses of the day love to play.

Issy Van Randwyck joins this amazing list in the Mill at Sonning production and has the stage presence and theatricality from her extensive performance experience to create this diva of duplicitous games playing. She revels in twists and turns they put each other and their guests through over the course of an evening. She is magnificent as she winsomely gives someone a flower milking every move to great effect. She flirts outrageously with guests and struts the stage when she recreates scenes from her past theatrical performances. She is the queen bee who the others buzz around, occasionally giving as good as they get.

Emily Panes and William Pennington who play her two bickering children Sorrel and Simon rise to the challenge of creating two bad mannered disgraceful young adults who enjoy the posing and playfulness of the family antics and bring their own dramatic reactions to the events while recognising that the atmosphere gets more and more unbearable each day. Nick Waring completes the family quartet as the bespectacled author, David who seems to drift in and out of the living room oblivious to the guest he has invited down.

The four guests who innocently arrive for a quiet weekend with their hosts never stand a chance in this atmosphere. Aretha Ayeh plays the vampish Myra, invited by Simon, Darrell Brockis is the diplomat Richard invited by Sorrel, Daniel Fraser plays the young impressionable Sandy invited by Judith and Beth Lilly is the unfortunate Jackie invited by David. Their presence creates plenty of awkward moments, but each seems contrived and the gamesmanship too obvious as if pre-planned rather than spontaneous.

Some of the best comic moments are delivered by Joanna Brookes as the former theatre dresser Clara now acting as housekeeper to the family who seems to have picked up theatrical traits from her mistress and makes the most of every entrance and exit in a blatant attempt to steal the scene. She provides the best laughs of the show.

The whole thing has an elegant period feel with excellent costumes and detailed staging in furniture and props and director Tam Williams ensures that the Act 3 Breakfast scene is played at a gentle comic pace as each serves their food before the family burst into another destructive gameplay. However, the constraints of the Mill’s stage space once again led to a ludicrous back wall with the entrance to the Library, garden, upstairs, front door and kitchen all side by side in a way that makes no sense at all and leads to some improbable entrances and exits. They make the most of these with a self-shutting door to the front hall and a squeaky second step to add some more comic moments. The sound effect of the car on the drive is very effective and reacted to well by those on stage.

It is the first time I had seen this play, so I came to it fresh like the visitors to the Bliss Household. I assume it is called Hay Fever as a nod to the allergic reaction each visitor has to the countryside idyll, they find themselves or perhaps to the Flowers that attract the bees around Judith’s Queen Bee. There is no denying that this good cast did a fine job in creating the bad-mannered characters on stage, but I left with the sense of an allergic reaction to the play which seems dated and without relevance to today and the only value is one of curiosity as to why it has had such an enduring appeal.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Row F | Price of Ticket: £76 including a 2-course meal

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