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Hay Fever on the Brain

No, not allergies, but the entertaining Noel Coward play of the same name. This farcical romp through a night in the life of a well-to-do, artistic family and their unfortunate house guests was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The Bliss matriarch, former actress, but always theatrical mother, Judith, leads her novelist husband, nude painting son and outspoken daughter through a night filled with high drama at the expense of the guests each family member has invited down for the weekend.
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Hay Fever is a biting critique of "celebrity" culture - though how famous Mr. and Mrs. Bliss are is dubious - both in how they view themselves and the reverence given to them by fans. All the family members invite a guest to their expansive house in the country, but even the children's guests are really there to see either Mr. or Mrs. Bliss. Once inside the house, Judith Bliss, orchestrates a mad cap night of dramatised divorces, affairs and even an engagement. While the family is all in on the joke, the poor guests are overwhelmed and utterly horrified.

Despite the complete lack of plot, really, nothing happens, the cast keep the audience entertained with standout performances. Jeremy Northam hits the perfect note of comic awkwardness as Richard Greatham, noted diplomatist, invited by Sorel but smitten by Judith. And Lindsay Duncan as matriarch, Judith Bliss, is a flawless puppet master, orchestrating a night of purely her own designs.

Despite this wonderful performances, Amy Morgan as Jackie Coryton wins the day as a hapless young flapper invited down by David Bliss so that he can study a real life flapper in a domestic setting (I paraphrase one of the best lines in the play). Her facial expressions bring real life to the play and deliver laughs even when she's on stage alone with no lines. She is the perfect foil, honest, shy and genuine, to the self-centred Blisses who are always "playing up" to Judith.

The four guest might tiptoe out the morning after, but the audience in the Noel Coward Theatre was somewhat more animated. Though the play gets off to a bit of a slow start, by the second act, it has really hit its stride and roars into the final act full of laughter. Perhaps the acting is a bit stilted in the opening scene, but I think it's more down to the writing. Without any plot to provide structure, the writing needs to be extremely witty in order to convince an audience that this non-story is worth watching. I'm not convinced Coward's opening lines do that. However, redemption is quickly coming and the play is definitely worth two hours of your time.

Hay Fever is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre on St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AU through June 2nd. Ticket prices from £16 - £53.50 (concessions and day-of tickets available).

Following it up with dinner on a patio in Soho seemed the only way to finish the day. I bet Judith Bliss would love the drag queens.