Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Hay Fever

Hay Fever by Noel Coward.  ACT Hub at Causeway Hall, Kingston, Canberra.  August 2-12, 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 8

Direction – Joel Horwood; Assistant to the Director – Steph Roberts
Sound Design – Neville Pye & Scarlett Coster; Lighting Design – Craig Muller
Costume Design – Fiona Leach & Tanya Taylor; Set Design – Joel Horwood
Stage Manager – Lucy van Dooren

Judith Bliss – Andrea Close; Frances Bliss – Steph Roberts
Sorel Bliss – Holly Ross; Simon Bliss – Glenn Brighenti
Myra Arundel – Tracy Noble; Richard Greatham – Joe Dinn
Sandy Tyrell – Meaghan Stewart; Jackie Coryton – Robbie Haltiner
Clara – Alice Ferguson

It’s very hard to take Noel Coward seriously.  Especially when, to add to the 1924 flapper era absurdity, an audience member’s smartphone rang just as Richard pulled the cord to call the recalcitrant servant Clara, and Jackie said “I don’t suppose it rings” – which it wasn’t supposed to, of course.  (I don’t think this happens every night).

But it is a serious matter to decide to stage this 99-year-old post World War I “light comedy”; while the designing, directing and acting of an apparently very silly play is very serious business.

ACT Hub does Hay Fever brilliantly.  

The Bliss Family – being oh-so modern – no longer have a conventional father, the novelist David.  After all, you could say that Noel Coward himself was an instigator of the gay revolution, so the Two for Tea family in the song (a boy for you and a girl for me) means that Sorel and Simon Bliss have two mothers, Judith and her wife Frances Bliss, played very husbandly by Steph Roberts.

And, what’s more, as you would expect in today’s gay world, the Sandy who Judith invites for the weekend is not “he” who “loves anything Japanese”, but “she”, played manfully by Meaghan Stewart.

So the mix-up of sexual relationships when the invited men flirt with the wrong women in Coward’s still patriarchal play, in Act Two becomes even more funny (they all speak the same words and behave in the same way) in this differently gendered version – in which all the characters, including the men, Richard and  the now male Jackie (in a touching performance by Robbie Haltiner), accept the fact of these relationships as normal (and Jackie denies that he will marry Simon, after all, as does Coward’s original).

In modern employment terms, then, this is a more diverse production.  However awfully funny the performances are – and they are, I assure you – on this point we can take Noel Coward seriously.  It was a good decision, 99 years late some might say, though it wouldn’t be fair to imagine Coward should have done it in his day when “Throughout the eighteenth century and up until 1861, all penetrative homosexual acts committed by men were punishable by death. Following this date, hanging was replaced by life imprisonment, and after the passage of the Labouchere Amendment in 1885, by up to two years' incarceration”.  [ ]

There was talk recently among theatre practitioners that Canberra should perhaps see itself as ‘Off Broadway’, with productions that would then go ‘On  Broadway’.  I suggest, for a start, that ACT Hub’s Hay Fever should at least go on to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre in Sydney, and then on tour nationally.

Glenn Brighenti, Andrea Close, Holly Ross
as Simon, Judith and Sorel Bliss
in Hay Fever by Noel Coward
ACT Hub, Canberra 2023

Canberra CityNews - Photo by Ben Appleton