Noel Coward wrote as if words slipped effortlessly off the tongue, slicing through all in its path and wit was used as a weapon on the witless. He made it look as easy as breathing, his voice coming through loud and clear in every word and I think, because it jumps off the page, there’s a belief that it’s just as effortless to stage. A bit of finery, an accent and off you go.
It’s a trap the New Theatre and director Rosane McNamara fell into in her production of Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’. Coward’s play takes us into the country retreat of the Bliss family and the torture they execute on their visitors in order to find inspiration and satiate vanity. McNamara’s production made Coward look like very hard work. Lines and accents were forced, vocals declaimed and some awkward timing meant that there were holes in the show that even Coward’s words couldn’t fill. Vocal coach Frank McNamara might have suggested that it doesn’t matter what your accent is if you’re yelling each line, especially to actress Jorja Brain (Sorell Bliss), who found no nuance in the many moods of daughter Sorell because every state came off as hysterical more than petulant.
There are a few bright spots in the New’s ‘Hay Fever’. Alice Livingstone, who plays matriarch Judith Bliss, floats onto the stage and once she’s there we feel like the play is in good hands as Livingstone relishes the moments her character indulges in the torment of others and her delusions of self-reverential importance. Some of the ensemble cast, especially those who are the victims of the Bliss family’s humiliation, mostly deliver. It makes the play okay but overall it’s very inconsistent in timing and dramatic language.
David Marshall-Martin’s set might be criticised for lacking in ornate charm but it adds to the idea that this family’s status is more self-serving than dedicated to paying attention to anything in the home, as evidenced in their treatment of housekeeper Clara (Sharron Oliver) and their inability to retain staff. The set filled the deep stage dimensions of the space and I loved all the possibilities of entrances and exits that it created to add to the elements of the farce.
I admire the New’s attempt to tackle ‘Hay Fever’ but it’s still a distance from being perfect. I hope they relax into the text and start to have fun with it on stage so the chunks of uncomfortable silence from the audience won’t send them into a panic and they can truly start working together and really listening to each other. Livingstone is the closest to doing this and the rest need to follow suit pronto in order to do Coward’s work justice.