I struggled with why Noël Coward’s Hay Fever was included in this year’s Festival playbill based around the theme of madness and minds pushed to the edge. It doesn’t contain madness per se; dysfunction, certainly. The minds pushed to the edge would be those of the houseguests of the play’s central family, who, by play’s end, sneak out in an attempt to escape the unbearable clan.
But madness? Perhaps madcap is a better way to describe it.
Hay Fever is well done; exactly the way it was meant to be presented. The performances are over the top, the set is lush and extravagant, and the drama is so superfluous and trivial that it’s played for straight laughs.
The members of the artistic Bliss family are all unapologetic drama queens: father David (Kevin Bundy), a writer of fiction; mother Judith (Lucy Peacock), a retired actress; and their grown children Simon (Tyrone Savage) and Sorel (Ruby Joy). Four visiting guests, a naive young boxer (Gareth Potter), a sultry and witty socialite (Cynthia Dale), a shy and thoroughly terrified flapper (Ijeoma Emesowum), and a dry diplomatist (Sanjay Talwar), learn this firsthand when they drop by the Bliss household for a weekend. Crass maid Clara (Sarah Orenstein) takes the discord in stride, fully accustomed to the chaos.
This production, directed by Alisa Palmer, does an excellent job of climatizing the audience before the curtain rises. The screen features well-done caricatures of the four family members which perfectly encapsulates both their kookiness and their haughty demeanors. Jazz standards blare, at least one of which was written by Coward himself. The tunes are all the kind of boneheaded, borderline offensive British tunes that passed for cavalier humour way back when, which sets the tone nicely for a play about a family of wealthy, egotistical, and emotionally stunted schmucks.
The set is absolutely stunning, with endless depth and detail. It trumps the set of last year’s Coward play, Blithe Spirit; in fact, the audience applauded as the curtain rose and they caught their first glimpse of the masterpiece.
Peacock sinks her teeth into the juicy role of Judith, hamming it up as the melodramatic font that the rest of the family takes their nourishment and cues from. Joy’s Sorel is the Lisa Simpson of the family, aware that her family is dysfunctional and wishing to better herself, yet, when the histrionics begin, she gets swept up like the rest. Dale is a fast-talking flapper accustomed to scandal who meets her match at the hands of the Blisses. Talwar also shines; his diplomat has almost a David Schwimmer aspect to him, or perhaps a humorously bland Groucho Marx with nothing to say.
The dialogue is quick and the play zips along at breakneck speed. However, a distracting sight gag involving a wonky step really slows the action down. The actors trip, stumble, or otherwise acknowledge it in some obvious way, providing no real laughs save for when Bundy skips the whole staircase and slides down on his rump in a fit of excitement. You expect the wonky step to pay off at some point with a big sight gag or pratfall, but it never comes. By the end, it’s really just annoying.
An early scene depicts Simon and Sorel resting their heads on the lap of Judith as she protectively lays her hands over them like a mother hen, encouraging them to be strong in the trying times ahead. It may remind you of a scene from this season’s Festival production of Mother Courage, except that, rather than the dehumanizing circumstances of Europe’s Thirty Years War, the trial at hand is a weekend spent in a house full of tawdry guests.
That’s not to say the Blisses are totally wrong in their worldview. Their interactions are contrasted nicely by the “normal” small talk scene between Talwar and Emesowum- a standout example of awkward British humour, with long pauses eliciting uncomfortable laughter from the audience.
I once knew a family a lot like the Blisses, who couldn’t play a game of Monopoly without someone flipping the board and storming out of the room. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the family loved playing Monopoly. They’d say atrocious things to one another, only to seemingly forget it all 10 minutes later.
It was, at first, a shock, me being raised on a strict regimen of proper passive-aggressive behaviour, but I eventually grew to expect and even participate in the family’s thunderous battles. In retrospect, I think they helped me to feel more at ease in tense moments of conflict.
I suppose, in those first few visits, I must have looked a lot like Talwar’s diplomat, all wide-eyed and speechless. In Hay Fever, as in real life, everyone looks dysfunctional and goofy when outside of their comfort zone. I’m sure Peacock’s Judith would be a riot at a consulate.
Coward has said that this play is purposefully devoid of substance, but if a moral had to be affixed to it, I suppose it would be that no one is normal, and we’re all crazy in our own weird way.