I just got back from seeing The Gate Theatre’s
production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, part of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival
This production intrigued me from the moment I saw it in the brochure months ago. Two years ago the Dublin-based Gate Theatre performed another of Coward’s breezy comedies, Present Laughter, at Spoleto. It was a nearly perfect production
filled with elegant scenery, drop-dead gorgeous costumes and some of the best comedic acting I’ve ever seen.
Luckily, Hay Fever is graced with many of the same virtues as Present Laughter, including many of the same delightful cast members. The story follows the Bliss family, a kooky band of eccentric artists who find their house brimming with company when, unbeknownst to the rest of the clan, each one invites an overnight guest to stay the weekend.
This early play of Coward relies on the artist-family’s ineptitude as hosts and their oddball behavior for much of the comedy, and in the Gate Theatre’s able hands the play bubbles with lightening-paced dialogue, delightfully funny characterizations and physical comedy as bubbly as a glass of champagne.
The actors manage to play characters full of theatricality and bombast without ever resorting to caricature. Though the Bliss family might be superficial, the performances are not. Ingrid Craigie is great as Judith Bliss. Her character is a recently retired grande dame of the theater who has not quite left her dramatic flair behind. Her husband is played by Stephen Brennan (who starred as the aging matinee idol Garry Essendine in Present Laughter) and he is similarly wonderful as the self-absorbed novelist David.
The harried houseguests also are fantastic, particularly Mark O’Halloran as Richard Greatham, a diplomat whose diplomacy and good nature are stretched to their limits by the bizarre behavior of his hosts. Some of the funniest moments of the play are ones without any dialogue, when one character is left in the awkward position of trying, in vain, to make himself at home in someone else’s home.
The sets and costumes are equally as detailed and effective. From the provocative paintings set on an easel to the mismatched dining room furniture, everything about the set conveys the Bliss family’s unconventional lifestyle. The 1920s era costumes are beautiful but also suggest the characters’ personalities perfectly, from Judith’s evening frock, which looks like something she might have worn playing Lady Macbeth, to her daughter Sorel’s clothes, which seem artfully designed to fall off of her body with very little effort.
All in all, the production can be summed up with a line from the play. In Act II, the character Myra says of the evening: “Charming. It’s all simply charming.” I quite agree.
Hay Fever plays now through June 10 at the historic Dock Street Theatre