And you thought your family was bad. Meet the Blisses.
Mother Judith (Heather Mitchell) is a retired stage actress, her husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a novelist and their two grown children, Simon (Tom Conroy) and Sorel (Harriet Dyer) still live at home. Hay Fever opens with the siblings exchanging insults and generally talking around one another as they speculate on their Mother’s recent odd behaviour. Suddenly in sweeps Judith in all her theatrical glory announcing her plan to return to the stage and revive her most acclaimed role in Love’s Whirlwind. She also announces that she has invited a young man up for the weekend, Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville), who’s greatest appeal lies in his ardent admiration and love of Judith.
However, Sorel has also invited a guest to stay, diplomat Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes), and adding to this overcrowded dilemma is Simon who is expecting Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson) at any moment. Judith’s distress at this unfortunate turn of events is heightened by the appearance of her husband David from his study and his announcement that he too has invited a guest, Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke), and that Simon in particular is to be attentive to her. As the guests begin to arrive they are treated to the most eccentric and farcical string of events, as the family subject them to parlour games, amorous flirtations, proposals, constant squabbling and the erratic behaviour of the housemaid Clara (Genevieve Lemon).
Noël Coward wrote Hay Fever at the age of 25 and presents a celebration of the bohemian circles in which he frequented, and although this may be difficult to believe, the Bliss family is actually based on a real family whom Coward stayed with in New York. Laurette Taylor, widely considered one of, if not the greatest American stage actress of the twentieth century, her husband Hartley Manners and their children were renowned for hosting house parties where they would subject their guests to their eccentric behaviour and ridiculous games. His time with the family so greatly influenced the writer that upon seeing Hay Fever, Taylor refused to speak to Coward for years, seeing so much of herself in the character of Judith.
It is impossible to single out any one performance as a stand out in this production, each character managed to dominate the stage and effectively hold their own in an exceptional display of comic timing and rapid fire dialogue. At times it was almost difficult to hear the performers, so loud were the roars of laughter from the audience. While some of the British accents were at times dubious, the sentiment and patronising tone was perfect, especially in the character of Sorel who managed to take petulance and make it an artform.
With a stunning set design that was determined to add to the havoc being created in its presence and an insight into the artistic temperament, Hay Fever is fast paced and witty from start to finish and will have you either grateful for the normalcy of your loved ones, or wishing you were part of the chaos.
Hay Fever is playing at the Sydney Opera House until May 21. For more information and to book tickets head to the Sydney Theatre Company website.