Review: Hay Fever at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City

19:19 25 January 2014

Josie Matthews as Jackie and Harry Harding as Sandy in Hay Fever at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]

Josie Matthews as Jackie and Harry Harding as Sandy in Hay Fever at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]

John Davies

Noël Coward comedy Hay Fever has played to packed houses at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City this week. Joseph Kerr reviews the Barn Theatre’s latest production.

Siobhan Elam as Judith and Will Smith as Richard in Hay Fever at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]Siobhan Elam as Judith and Will Smith as Richard in Hay Fever at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: John Davies]

Fifty years ago, would anyone have predicted that the plays of Noël Coward would still be performed in 2014?

He was at that time at the nadir of his career, eclipsed by the such gritty realists and angry young men, such as Pinter, Wesker and Osborne.

Well, some of the gritty realists aren’t as evident today on our stages as they were then, whilst, as this week’s offering at Barn Theatre shows, Coward remains as popular as ever.

It’s not hard, from this production of Hay Fever, to see why.

The cast of Hay Fever

Sorel Bliss -– Alessia Procaccini

Simon Bliss – Dominic Arnold

Clara – Maureen Davies

Judith Bliss – Siobhán Hill Elam

David Bliss – John Walton

Richard Greatham – Will Smith

Sandy Tyrell – Harry Harding

Myra Arundel – Sarah Doyle-Smith

Jackie Coryton – Josie Matthews

Coward doesn’t seek to be profound, only to amuse.

This is frankly a rather lightweight tale of an eccentric and disorganised family of bohemians, each of whom, unknown to the others, has invited someone they rather fancy – or who rather fancies them – to stay for the weekend.

Once trapped within the confines of a conventional country weekend, the guests each find themselves subjected to romantic intrigue designed not to satisfy them but to titillate the melodramatic fancies of their hosts. It’s a charming piece, light-hearted, witty and ever-so-slightly daring, without ever bringing a blush to a maiden aunt’s cheek.

To deliver the charm of Coward isn’t easy. He needs slick and period-sensitive direction, and above all highly sophisticated and stylish acting.

This production certainly met the first requirement: both the set and the costumes were visually ravishing, the latter – with their many changes – wonderfully expressive of the ‘bright young thing’ look of the 1920s.

The acting was a bit more uneven, though fortunately the main parts were all in highly competent hands.

Siobhán Elam perfectly expressed the extreme narcissism and need for melodrama of the retired West End star Judith Bliss; John Walton, was convincingly self-absorbed as her novelist husband; and Alessia Procaccini showed a new side to her acting persona as the effervescent and entirely irresponsible daughter Sorel Bliss.

Among the guests I was particularly impressed by newcomer Josie Matthews as the flapper Jackie, the nearest thing to a normal person on the entire stage, and all the harder to play by reason of that.

Nor must I forget the delightful cameo performance of Maureen Davies as the dresser-turned-housekeeper Clara – a domestic even more eccentric than her employers, if that were possible.

If you are a fan of Pinter or Wesker you may find it hard to really admire this play – but if you simply want an entertaining evening in the theatre, the Barn this week will be a good place to find it.

* Our Country’s Good will be the Barn Theatre’s next production. It opens on Friday, February 7.

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