Hell will probably freeze over before we see an Ivor Novello revival at the Novello Theatre, but the former Albery Theatre now gets the first production of a play by Noel Coward since it was renamed in his honour. It’s a pleasure to be able to report that the result is the finest, funniest Coward production in the capital since Private Lives played at the same address under its old name in 2001, with the same director Howard Davies and star Lindsay Duncan who are reunited here.
Olivia Colman (Myra Arundel) and Freddie Fox (Simon Bliss) in Hay Fever at the Noel Coward Theatre, London (previous picture shows Lindsay Duncan as Judith Bliss and Jeremy Northam as Richard Greatham) Photo: Catherine Ashmore
As with Private Lives, Davies - who is one of our most intuitive and inventive of all directors - unlocks the heartlessness of this comedy of monstrous bad manners by finding its even more morbidly self-absorbed heart. He gets his exemplary cast to dig beneath the infinite surface glitter of insult and ignorance to lay bare a family who are locked into a cycle of play acting that has turned them into what one of their hapless house guests calls “a featherbed of false emotion”.
It can be difficult to get the tone right so you don’t want to simply throttle them all, but Davies leads them through a comic minefield with deft assurance, making sure that every single joke in the script detonates with real force, and adding plenty more that aren’t in the script by directing between the lines. I’ve seldom seen the imposition of silences realised with such hilarious results.
There’s also plenty of inventive physical comedy, with the cocoon of self-absorption that the family exist within beautifully punctured here to expose more raw emotions and unfulfilled needs. There’s real vulnerability behind the ravishing glamour of Lindsay Duncan’s Judith Bliss, trying desperately to cling on to her fading youth as she contemplates another return from acting retirement. Just as she refuses to grow old, Freddie Fox and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as her son and daughter Simon and Sorel are superbly resolute in their refusal to grow up, while Kevin R McNally as novelist father David presides over this dysfunctional trio with a remoteness of his own.
With Jeremy Northam, Olivia Colman, Sam Callis and Amy Morgan nicely differentiated as their hapless house guests, and Jenny Galloway as the forever bustling housemaid, Coward’s play has been superbly cast throughout. A play about the Bliss family provides crisp comic bliss itself.