Theatre Company: Toads Theatre Company
Cast: Maggie Campbell, Laura Jo-Williams, Lloyd Bickham, Jon Manley, Jo Clark, Gary Abraham, Jemma Carlin-Wells, Jools Head, Jill Pettigrew
Plot: An eccentric family in the 1920s invite a guest each to their family house, unaware that the rest of the family has done the same.
There is something delightfully relaxing about slipping into a 1920s British farce, especially when the script was penned by the likes of Noel Coward. We are pretty much guaranteed to get some oddball English eccentrics thrown into hilarious and compromising scenarios. Hay Fever is no different, featuring the ‘mad-as-a-hatter’ Bliss family. During the opening segments, we are introduced to the two younger Bliss family members, Soren Bliss and Simon Bliss, and they appear perfectly charming and normal. Both of the characters express to the audience their awareness of their peculiarities, but the audience cannot quite place how they are so weird. However, as the play gets closer and closer to its climax, their bohemian lifestyle and queer past-times are slowly revealed to the audience in a rib-achingly amusing manner. Outside of this subtext, there is ample room for comedy in the main plot. Each of the family members have privately invited a guest to dinner, unaware that everyone else has done the same. By the time Saturday afternoon comes around, the house is filled with bewildered people, all trapped in an enclosed space, while private romances attempt to blossom. Add the fact that the characters are comprised of proper English rich people and the uncomfortable squirming each of the characters go through is a pleasure to behold.
The cast take the lion’s share of the praise for that, of course. Leading the show is Maggie Campbell’s ebullient Judith Bliss, the matriarch of the family. While her husband locks himself away in his study, writing the latest of his novels (of debatable quality), Judith wanders the house, being loud, boisterous and generally being a nuisance. The phrase ‘going old gracefully’ is not in Judith’s vocabulary. Planning her return to the world of acting, after a few weeks of retirement, and seeing the dating scene as more of a gentle distraction than anything as serious as her suitors think it is, Maggie Campbell’s performance fuels a lot of the energy of this production. While each of the Bliss family share traits with Judith, it is the mother who embodies them whole-heartedly and constantly. Whenever she is on-stage, she is projecting her emotions to their full extent. It must have been tremendous fun for the actress. The character of Judith is so passionate about theatre that Campbell is able to deliver each line with as much theatrical gusto as she can muster. There is no line in the sand when it comes to melodrama and Campbell makes wicked use of this freedom, constantly hitting joke after joke with the audience. That being said, the rest of the family hardly have to hold back. Both Laura Jo-Williams and Lloyd Bickham’s Sorel and Simon Bliss are constantly performed with the energy of puppies, the characters unable to be seated for a moment too long. Williams is a charismatic performer, Soren the most likeable of the family due to the fact she comes across as the most down-to-earth for the longest period of time in this play. She is a youthful presence, wide-eyed and earnest. However, beneath the performance is the distinct possibility, she will likely grow into a carbon copy of her mother, especially in the play’s closing moments. Lloyd Bickham has plenty of moments to shine too. His Simon is far more openly dotty than Soren, but not quite as mad as his mother (perhaps this review needs to establish some kind of Bliss insanity scale). He comes across as more of a young boy in the middle of adolescence that has spent far too long cooped up with his crazy family. His guest is what he hopes to be a probable suitor and any interaction he has with a female usually results in a chaotic flood of blundering. It is the kind of stuff any play about the 1920s English gentry needs to fit in. Jon Manley has the role of the father, who, as established, spends most of the play locked away in his study. Most of his gags comes from the fact that, as the house fills with guests he is not aware of, he drifts through the plot, taking everything on the chin. His blasé nature is just as amusing as the riotous acts of the other three and his character’s unexpected response to any given situation is always fun to watch. If anything, the Bliss family are so amusing to behold that it is the guest characters who are left scrabbling for the limelight. Their job is to be the witnesses of this madness. The women fare better than the men. Jo Clark’s Myra Arundel has enough bite to call the Bliss family on their madness and Jemma Carlin-Wells steals the best joke of the production. The men, sadly, get much less to do. This is nothing against the actors, Gary Abraham and Jools Head both delivering wonderfully charming performances, but their job is to simply lust after the female characters. A rare weak note from Coward? Or perhaps director Jill Farrant adding a delicious feminist kick to an entertainment industry that has too long given talented female actors these kind of roles?
There are issues as well as joys to be had from 1920s English comedies, of course. And sadly Hay Fever walks into quite a few of them. As with any piece of theatre that plays to the comfort zone of the audience, it is too easily also locked into that zone with them. The play opens and closes checking off trademarks to the genre like a to-do list. This is an understandably common issue with a piece that uses known playwrights, rather than attempting an original piece. We expect a mad English family, some form of romantic mix-up between the several couples on show and someone to be caught in a compromising act. It feels like a strange thing to criticise, because Farrant directs them all with a welcoming appeal. The plot developments feel more natural than it could have done in lesser hands and while the same-old feel of Coward’s play is inescapable, it is also amusing. However, as with most comedies of this genre, while I am always left entertained, I am rarely given the sense I have learnt something by the time the curtains close. There are also certain story beats that could have done with being ironed out. Again, this is an issue with adapting an age-old play, rather than trying something new, but if the production team were allowed more freedom with the script, perhaps a smoother story would have been found. The third act is still a odd one for me. The play sort of ends at the end of Act Two, the reveal of the Bliss family’s true nature shown to the audience and a fitting closing curtains moment. Do we need the third act? It is a brief epilogue, where we reintroduce the characters, now in this new light. On one hand, it gives the guests, who I argued to have needed more time on-stage, that little bit more to do, allowed time with the audience away from the Bliss family. On another hand, it is short and arguably brings too little to the story to be justified. Perhaps it needed to be either rewritten or cut. It would have also been nice to see some more scenes in the second act where the entire cast were together, easily when the play hits it height. But again, these are all minor issues to be expected when handling a play of this age. On the whole, Toads have delivered an uplifting piece that entertains and impresses. What more can a theatre lover really ask for?
Final Verdict: A spirited cast and knowing direction makes Noel Coward’s script come to life in a, perhaps routine, but charming way.