Hay Fever

Tracy-Noble-Robbie-Haltiner-Andrea-Close-Steph-Roberts-Holly-Ross-Meaghan-Stewart-in-Hay-FeverNoel Coward’s 1925 comedy of manners concerns the experiences of four guests, all invited by different members of the Bliss family, who arrive for a weekend at the Bliss country home, expecting an idyllic retreat.

Their expectations are dashed however by the self-absorbed eccentricities of the Bliss family who subject them to all manner of indignities, including cruel parlour games, bad food and uncomfortable beds.

Like the unwary hay fever sufferer unaware of the beautiful garden flower that harbours a deadly pollen hit, the guests discover that the Bliss’ outwardly tempting retreat conceals something nasty and supremely irritating, ultimately forcing the guests to beat a hasty retreat, humiliated and embarrassed.

There is much to like about ACT Hub’s current production; an attractive setting, some lovely costumes, some good performances and some genuinely funny moments.

However, in line with current theatrical fashion, but in an arguably misguided attempt to bring Coward’s play into the twenty-first century, director, Joel Horwood, has changed the gender of several of the characters. While this adds a certain titillation, it also comes at a price.

All of Coward’s comedies are ‘style’ pieces. When this style is achieved they can be sublime. However style should not be confused with over-acting. A temptation to which several actors in this production succumb. Style requires the actor to seek out the authenticity within the character, no matter how silly their antics.

Andrea Close, as the outrageously silly, Judith Bliss, understands this, and her wonderfully stylised performance is sheer delight because her Judith, a retired actress given to reliving her past triumphs, is absolutely believable, despite her eccentricities.

Similarly, Tracy Nobel as the vampish Myra Arundel and Joe Dinn as the stuffy diplomat, Richard Greatham, both create stylish, believable characterisations and are very funny as a result.

Holly Ross as Sorel Bliss, and Glenn Brighenti as her argumentative brother Simon, are both appropriately annoying, but hopefully will use the rest of the season to find the key to becoming the characters rather than ‘acting’ them.

Comedy usually requires a straight man for the comedian to work off. ‘Straight’ in this context refers to style rather than gender. In this production, by changing the gender of Coward’s characters, the straight characters are lost, resulting to everyone competing for the laughs.

In the case of Judith’s novelist husband, originally David, but now a lesbian called Frances, played by Steph Roberts; it’s hard to see what has been gained. David is meant to be boring. Roberts certainly succeeds there, but it also makes Judith’s flirtation with Richard rather improbable.

Jackie Coryton was written as a brainless flapper. Robbie Haltiner works hard to make something of the role, now a colourless young man whose only reason for existence in the play now appears to be to allow Simon Bliss to announce their engagement, which under the circumstances, seems to come as no surprise to anyone.

Meaghan Stewart is totally at a loss to make something of her character. In the original script, Sandy Tyrell is described as a sporty fan of Judith Bliss. Now re-imagined as a female boxer, it’s difficult to fathom what in Stewart’s over-the-top mugging and unfunny, pre-programmed responses to her situations, convey this.

Alice Ferguson is delightful as Clara, Judith Bliss’s former dresser, who works for the Bliss family as a much put-upon general dogsbody as butler, maid and cook. Her glittery black costume is quite lovely, but wondering why she wears such a beautiful gown day and night, without protecting it with an apron for her kitchen duties, proved a distracting dilemma.

These thoughts apart, if you’re in the mood to sample Noel Coward’s unrivalled talent to amuse, and are not averse to seeing his work re-imagined through an LGBTQI prism, then you’ll still find much to delight in this ACT Hub production.

Hay Fever
ACT Hub, 14 Spinifex Street, Kingston (Canberra)
Performance: Friday 4 August 2023
Season continues to 12 August 2023
Information and Bookings: www.acthub.com.au

Image: Tracy Noble, Robbie Haltiner, Andrea Close, Steph Roberts, Holly Ross and Meaghan Stewart in Hay Fever – photo by Photox: Canberra Photography Services

Review: Bill Stephens OAM