The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Theatre Summer 2006
Judi Dench plays the actress matriarch of a bohemian family who overpower and embarrass their more conservative houseguests.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Noel Coward's 1925 comedy bears a more than passing resemblance to the Kaufmann-Ferber Royal Family of 1927, a play in which Dench played a very similar role (with the same director, in the same theatre) just a few years ago.
Hay Fever is a slightly superior play, and this production is significantly superior to that version of The Royal Family, so tourists attracted by the star's name (and they do make up the bulk of the audience) will get their money's worth.
In Coward's play the actress and her equally unconventional novelist husband and their grown children have each, unbeknownst to the others, invited a guest for the weekend - mother's latest toyboy, father's airheaded flapper, son's older vamp and daughter's distinguished diplomat.
Once the first set of confusions have been passed, we can relax and watch the inevitable dance of farce, first as the mixed doubles rearrange themselves in more age-appropriate ways, and then as the hosts' predilection for overdramatising everything (just because it's more fun that way) overpowers and then scares off the visitors.
Thing are a little slow getting started, but the laughs flow once it's established that Dench's character is the sort of actress for whom the most commonplace of conversations is played like dialogue from one of her roles, and that the family enjoy feeding her cues and responding in the same spirit. So we get to enjoy their enjoyment of the mock high-drama as well as the confusion of the hapless outsiders.
Dench can play this sort of role in her sleep, and though occasionally you might suspect that that is what she's doing, even at half-steam she's better than anyone else. Peter Bowles as the husband, Kim Medcalf and Dan Stevens as the children, and Belinda Lang, Charles Edwards, William Chubb and Olivia Darnley as their victims are all first-rate.
The only cavil with Peter Hall's direction (infinitely more spirited and alive than his treatment of The Royal Family) is that he might have encouraged the family to go even more over-the-top to farcical effect, but he has guided them to some delightful touches. There's a string of shtick involving a breakfast trolley that just gets better and better, and Judi Dench does a throwaway bit with a mirror that's almost worth the price of admission in itself.
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