Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

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Heather Mitchell and Josh McConville. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever when he was just 24 but already a star in the making. A comedy of gleefully bad manners, it was a huge hit when it premiered in 1925 despite lukewarm reviews and is still much performed.

Coward’s plays are deceptively difficult to do well. If the actors only give us superficial flamboyance and witticisms, the humour can all too easily fall flat. But Imara Savage has directed a fabulously funny production for Sydney Theatre Company that has a fresh edge and contemporary energy while still retaining a feel of the period.

The play is set in the household of the eccentric Bliss family. Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell) is retired actress, determined to keep performing even if she no longer has a stage. Her husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a novelist and their grown-up children Sorrel (Harriet Dyer) and Simon (Tom Conroy) still live at home, without appearing to work.

All four invite a guest for the weekend without telling each other, thrusting them into a maelstrom of games and idiosyncratic carry-on that leaves their visitors reeling.

Essentially a lightweight comedy, Hay Fever offers the audience a vicarious thrill in experiencing life with such wayward “artistic” types. But it also celebrates bohemian freedom and vitality, and contrasts that with the rather stuffy, conservative mores of “ordinary” people and their concerns about sex and class.

Alicia Clements’ wonderful design isn’t period specific but subtly combines elements from the 1920s with later decades, setting the action in an attractively ramshackle conservatory full of greenery and eccentric touches like a bathtub for a sofa. Only the inclusion of wheelie suitcases and the decision to have Judith lip synch to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black when she offers to sing at the piano sit a little oddly.

Clements’ costumes are also terrific with all the Blisses in a permanent state of semi-undress or dressing gowns and the outfits of the other characters speaking reams about their personalities from the anxious Jackie’s girly cotton frocks and Alice band to the vampy Myra’s stylish couture.

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Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Harriet Dyer and Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Savage’s excellent cast combines wit with truth. Towards the end of the play, some of the performing becomes broadly comic and more farcical but overall the characters all feel very real.

Mitchell is sensational as Judith, a whirling dervish at the heart of the play. Her comic timing is immaculate and she is gloriously funny as she tears up the stage. Llewellyn-Jones is distinguished yet grouchy as the rather self-absorbed David. Dyer plays Sorrel with a contemporary edge as a young woman testing who she is, while Conroy’s Simon affects a nonchalant flamboyance.

Helen Thomson as the chic, sardonic Myra, Alan Dukes as the proper “diplomatist” Richard, Josh McConville as the rather gung-ho sportsman Sandy, and Briallen Clarke as the mousey, nervous Jackie are the perfect foil as the beleaguered guests. Genevieve Lemon is also very funny in a broadly comic portrayal of the exasperated housekeeper.

The Bliss family can become rather unlikeable in productions but Savage avoids that, ensuring that their love for each other comes across as strongly as their hilariously appalling behaviour.

Hay Fever plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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Noel and Gertie review

Glen Street Theatre May 22

Noel and Gertie is a delicious, frothy confection of a show that has the sparkle of fine bubbly and a similarly intoxicating effect.

It was devised in 1982 by Sheridan Morley who used the words and music of Noel Coward to tell the story of Coward’s legendary, tempestuous friendship with actor Gertrude Lawrence – his sometime muse for whom he wrote Private Lives.

The show doesn’t break any ground dramatically. Morley tells their story chronologically using a montage of songs and extracts from Coward’s plays, diaries and letters. But when performed as well as it is here by James Millar and Lucy Maunder, it’s a delight.

 

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

The production, deftly directed by Nancye Hayes, has an elegant simplicity. Graham Maclean has designed a simple, Art Deco-inspired set and a gorgeous, slinky, white satin, Molyneux-like gown for Maunder, while Millar wears black tie.

Millar is cut out to play Coward. He looks the part and tosses off Coward’s witticisms effortlessly in a precise, clipped, English accent as if born to it, bringing the house down with his rendition of Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington.

Maunder also gives a lovely performance. Like Millar she is attuned to the sophistication and rhythms of Coward’s writing and sings more beautifully than Lawrence in numbers including Sail Away and Parisian Pierrot.

Together, they have a scintillating chemistry and capture the mischievous, bantering relationship between the two stars.

 

Lucy Maunder and James Millar.  Photo by Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

It’s not easy to perform Coward – and even harder when you’re performing extracts out of context. But the scenes from plays including Private Lives and Blithe Spirit work a treat, while the one from Still Life (which became the film Brief Encounter) is touching. There is still a little more emotional depth and nuance to be found but this will doubtless develop as the show settles in.

Musical director Vincent Colagiuri provides sensitive accompaniment on a grand piano sitting unobtrusively at the back of the stage.

Morley tells us almost nothing about Coward’s private life. There is one passing reference to Graham Payn performing in Tonight at 8.30pm but no mention of the fact that he was Coward’s partner for 30 years. Nor does Morley include the more colourful incidents from Lawrence’s. Watching it you feel you’d like to know more about them.

Nonetheless, in the hands of Millar and Maunder, Noel and Gertie is a stylish, delightful entertainment.

Noel and Gertie plays at Glen Street Theatre until June I then tours nationally to the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5 – 8; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11 – 15; Frankston Arts Centre, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21 – 22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26 – 29; The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, July 2 – 7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, July 12 – 13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16 – 18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; Adelaide Festival Centre, July 23 – 27.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 16.