Imara Savage knows her way around a comedy. In her hands Hay Fever, the Noel Coward classic currently holding court at Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre, feels surprisingly, merrily, sharp.
Heather Mitchell is Judith Bliss, a mostly-retired veteran of the theatre who carries herself as though the whole world really is a stage. Her new life in the country seems slow-going and far too devoid of the spotlight, but things get interesting again when, in farcical manner, it turns out each family member has invited a guest to stay over. Where will they put them?! How will entertaining be managed?! Will Clara, the maid (an indulgently broad performance by Genevieve Lemon) ever know which guest should sleep in the Japanese room?
Judith’s daughter Sorel (a sardonic Harriet Dyer) might be well aware that her artistic family is more superficial than thoughtful, but she doesn’t know how to dig deeper into a meaningful life. Her brother Simon (a droll Tom Conroy) couldn’t care less about this problem – he’s more interested in romancing his guest Myra Arundel (an excellent, dismissive Helen Thomson).
It’s a culture clash when the guests arrive, a delightful cacophony of pretension and terror. Briallen Clark is perpetually petrified as Jackie Corton, novelist patriarch David Bliss’s guest – played with satisfying self-absorption by Tony Llewllyn-Jones). She looks frequently to Judith and Sorel’s guests for help, but Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville) – infatuated by charms of the Bliss women – and Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes) – the diplomatist who Sorel hopes will inspire her to reach for more – aren’t really equipped to handle the Bliss’s, either.
It’s easy for a play like this to spiral out of hand or feel like a museum piece, but this 1925 comedy feels fresh here at STC. Savage keeps tight hold of the play and lets its arch and specific jokes land without becoming overblown. She keeps it vibrant and vital by moving quickly and adhering to the structure of Coward’s jokes and wordplay, which affords this impressive cast room to do their best work.
The gorgeously offbeat set by Alicia Clemons provides a compelling backdrop to the comedy of manners; overgrown plants, a bathtub-as-chair, and slight wildness of the space conjures up the sensibilities of a family insistent upon wildness and the performance of bohemia. So too do Clemons’ costumes (she is a master storyteller for this production); for the Bliss’s they are carelessly decadent or curious afterthoughts; for their guests they are deliberate, tailored decisions.
Mitchell is the centre of the play and a pure delight throughout – while Sorel feels like the soul of the class divide personified in this piece, it is Mitchell who is the funniest and must be the most outrageous, and she does it by giving Judith spades of dignity (probably, thankfully, too much dignity); she’s a compelling, flighty portrait of a woman who must have attention.
There’s a strange misstep that sees Judith perform a messy lip-sync to Amy Winehouse that feels tonally separate from the rest of the production, and perhaps the play itself is too long for its own good, but it’s so much fun. And really, that’s all it has to be.