Noel Coward said his early upbringing was “liable to degenerate into refined gentility unless carefully watched”. If so, Hay Fever is a sort of anecdotal antidote.
A gold curtain veils the stage of the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, a nod perhaps to the golden era when Hay Fever had its heyday premiere season over 90 years ago.
House lights dim, curtains split horizontally to reveal a verdant, tatty opulent set of decadent disarray and a bathtub centre stage subbing for a sofa.
The Bliss siblings, Simon, in his sketching paint spattered art making work clothes, and Sorel, in her not so fetching tart making dishabille, bicker with bratty banter, a badinage born and bred of boredom, bemoaning their bohemian existence whilst simultaneously wallowing in it. Indulged and spoiled, they are the spawn of box office she-bang thespian, Judith Bliss, and bestselling novelist, David Bliss, brought up in a hot house of hysteria and histrionics.
Indeed, Alicia Clements’ exotic set suggests a hot house where hanging plants fall fecund and full, like over-ripe fruits, and the barometer breaks under pressure of the humid human antics. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting adds to the lush and louche décor, expanding the depth of the stage back into the garden.
In his programme notes, outgoing STC Artistic Director confesses to have hesitated in programming Noel Coward during his tenure because his plays can swiftly slip into a nostalgic British fabulousness. But isn’t that the very reason we revisit The Master?
He is right, however, in his declaration of casting Heather Mitchell as Judith Bliss was an absolute no brainer. She was made for this role and does not disappoint. Drawing from her vast board treading experience and treasure trove of technique she leads this troupe in a nostalgic British fabulousness.
As her sparring partner spouse, Tony Llewellyn-Jones is decidedly distinguished, debonair and deceptively dour, a perfect foil and feint to Mitchell’s flourishes.
Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer are superbly surly as the indulged siblings, outwardly fatigued of their familial home, but in no rush whatsoever to evacuate their vacuous universe.
Josh McConville as Judith’s house guest, Sandy, brings a nice sense of wide eyed bewilderment, as does Briallen Clarke as Jackie, invited by David so as to observe a duck out of water. Alan Dukes as Richard, seduced by Sorel for a weekend stay, is similarly bamboozled while doing a sterling job of trying to remain dignified and diplomatic.
Helen Thomson as Myra, the mature socialite Simon seeks a dalliance with brings to bear a sniffy sophistication, while Genevieve Lemon is hilarious as the family maid and Judith’s former dresser, Clara. As serving characters have been wont to do from Shakespeare to Sheridan, Lemon’s characterisation of Clara is clearly designed to steal scenes if not the silver!
Twerking and nipple tweaking Hay Fever into the Twenty First Century, director Imara Savage, her designers and cast have restored Coward as a hero of the theatre with this frolicsome romp fastidiously mounted, stirruped and spurred by staccato impulsiveness; a cool sophistication brought to the boil. Nearly a hundred years hence, the fun is intense. Like attending a marvellous party, one couldn’t have liked it more.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Noël Coward
Director Imara Savage
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 11 April – 21 May 2016
Tickets: from $64
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au