‘A plotless play’ is the perfect description of Noel Coward’s Hayfever – a comedy written in three days with no revisions back in 1924.
As the curtain began to fall at the end of Act One, to uncertain and confused clapping from the audience, I was beginning to wonder if anything would happen at all.
However, the fact that the play has hardly been off the stage around the world in the past 90 years must be testament to its ability to entertain.
Following the histrionics of the Bliss clan over a day and a half, Hayfever begins with the two Bohemian siblings Sorel and Simon talking about nothing to no great purpose.
As the ‘action’ progresses their mother, a former grande dame of the theatre appears from the garden, overacts wildly, followed by the author father, who does the same.
It emerges that each member of the family has invited a guest for the weekend without telling each other, sparking a round of tantrums.
By the second act the laughter began to flow more freely as the terrifying reality of spending a weekend with the Bliss’ unfolded.
The guests were bullied into playing parlour games and yelled at if they did not play according to the family’s expectations.
A stolen kiss or a snog in the library were exaggerated into reasons to end marriages or initiate betrothals, much to the bemused horror of the visitors. Their desperate attempts to escape this madhouse caused much hilarity.
Judith Bliss, the matriarch of the family, has been played by some true acting greats such as Celia Johnson, Penelope Keith, Diana Rigg and Lyndsey Duncan. Here the role is taken by Felicity Kendall and she plays the role of faded actress declaiming and overacting to melodramatic perfection.
Also worth mentioning was Jackie Coryton who played Celeste Dodwell, a not very bright young woman who dissolves into tears as the chaos swirls around her.
Some fluffed lines were a sure sign of a production in its early days, but it didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the audience who laughed and cheered the cast on.
To my mind, Hayfever does not live up to the sparkling wit and comedy of Coward’s other classics Private Lives and Blithe Spirit.
A play where nothing happens is all very well, but I felt the action in the first act was just too thin and rather subdued, making the hysterics of the second act as bewildering to me as the houseguests on stage.
I also struggled to be interested in the characters, but given the reaction of the audience, I must concede that perhaps a piece as light as Hayfever isn’t really my cup of tea.
Others seemed to like it just fine.