Written by Noël Coward
Directed by Martin Foreman
Delayed on arrival, The Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group has been unfurling plans for an adaptation of Hay Fever since 2020, and now, with no more obstacles in their way, this magnificently definitive farcical drama makes its debut on the Assembly Roxy stage. Blissful.
The quintessential comedy of manners, enough to make the Young Conservatives blush, Coward’s subversive 1925 piece has long been a tour-de-force of wit, masquerading as farce and nonsense. And it’s far from an easy production to capture, with recent revivals attempting to force additional dimensions to ‘flesh’ out the narrative with a Shakespearean flair when Coward’s durable piece of envy, frustrations and etiquette is usually at its most robust when adapted without significant alteration. Where this production benefits, is with the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group knowing full well the value of Coward’s script, but injects a pleasant sense of performance, where emotions are dialled up, and the laughs follow.
It all begins rather quaint, but this doesn’t last dreadfully long, as audiences sit down for a cigarette with the Bliss siblings Sorel and Simon – one petulant and puerile, the other equally so. They’re distressed to find that one another has invited a guest over for the weekend, they’re even further horrified to discover that their mother, Judith, has done the same. With limited options for food, only one Japanese room to house a guest, and the squabbles of irritation over the nature of each guest – it’s unlikely to be anything other than a miserable experience.
Oh, and to make things worse – their Father, David, has also invited a plucky young thing to stay for the weekend.
Now, despite initial concerns over the cast of nine having to fight for audience attention, mercifully, synergy between cast members pushes forward, complementing one another’s comedic abilities rather than robbing. There are noted performances ofcourse, but no one is falling behind, and no character feels underappreciated – even the mousier and quieter of roles are given a significantly memorable moment of humour here and there, Lois William’s Jackie being a particular delight in the shudders and anxiety-erupting responses to this mad, mad family.
In this house, bold, boisterous, and brazen is the sign of success, somewhat. Retired from the stage, Judith lives this weekend as her personal play, full of love affairs, confessions and dramatic irony in droves. Her family are her supporting cast, much to their ire, and the guests may as well be the audience. Angela Harkness Robertson’s Judith is a treasure, a gaudy lashing of costume jewellery who sharpens her tongue on any who foolishly engages in battle, though it does take a moment or two for her to begin to overplay the part (something one would expect from the onset). The entire family live off winding one another up, Oliver Cookson as Judith’s husband David perhaps the adept at going toe-to-toe with Robertson, his performance remarkably subdued, but visceral in control and authority.
Thankfully, Joseph Cathal’s Sandy Tyell injects some projection of movement away from the various ‘sitting’ scenes, often the one darting around the set, Grace Gilbert is equally as um, passionate, in her movements to and from Cathal’s location in the second act. Gilbert turns in an impressive performance as Sorel, coming over as the more engaging siblings, with a wide variety of expressive remarks and effortless control over the men around her, save her father. Gregor Dickie’s Simon, though as equally childish as his sister Sorel, just can’t grasp the nuance of the performance as keenly, let down somewhat by the characterisation of the role.
If anything, Foreman’s direction may benefit from leaning even more heavy-handed into the physicality of the piece – particularly to fend off the snippets where the silences aren’t met with outright laughter. A tricky one, instances such as Williams, Wendy Brindle and Laurence Wareing’s unbearably British and charmingly awkward silences make for a particular highlight of reactive comedy, whilst the clearing of tables and setting of scenes comes with a progressive stagnation of the amped-up energy and momentum.
Thankfully, with the three-act structure, the pacing is remarkably controlled, with no Act overstaying its welcome and snipping at a concise moment of dramatic flair or investment, pushing audiences onward to the end. And throughout the evening, as hosts switch guests and couples blossom from unexpected locations, Hay Fever devolves into a ludicrous farce of forced mannerisms and lampooning of the elitist notions surrounding cultural class, it may not pack the often-quoted one-liners of Coward’s other pieces, but EGTG does a strikingly effective job in capturing the dysfunctional family, resulting in blissful chaos, a timeless classic with a grassroots heart and energy.
Hay Fever runs at the Assembly Roxy until May 21st.
Tickets for which can be obtained here.
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