There’s always something delightful about going to see a show at The Mill at Sonning. The idyllic countryside surrounding the working watermill. A beautiful building mostly from around 1890. A delicious 2-course meal that is included in the ticket price. And the possibility of rubbing shoulders with local resident film star George Clooney in the gorgeous Watermill Bar.
So it feels rather ornery to find so little to recommend in their current production. On paper, Noël Coward’s Hay Fever seems a great fit for Sonning’s rather more mature audience demographic. Premiering at the Ambassadors Theatre in 1925, the 98-year old play is generally considered the first of Coward’s major plays.
The plot is so thin as to be translucent. Set in the Cookham country house of the eccentric Bliss family, retired actress Judith Bliss (Issy Van Randwyck), novelist husband David (Nick Waring) and their two grown-up children Simon (William Pennington) and Sorel (Emily Panes) have each invited a guest down for the weekend – unbeknown to the others.
The guests no sooner have arrived before they see a weekend from Hell stretching out before them as the self-absorbed family seem more intent on winding each other up and indulging in narcissistic games rather than looking after their invited guests. “We are abnormal” accurately declares Sorel. It is a comedy of manners or lack thereof and as such should be played lightly and briskly. Unfortunately this production does neither.
Judith, the retired theatre actress secretly planning a return to the stage, is meant to be the epicentre of high dramatics within the family and Issy Van Randwyck gives a suitably ripe performance as the histrionic matriarch. But instead of letting this performance set the central tone of the piece, some fellow cast members go soaring past with misguidedly broad portrayals. Nick Waring’s David is so wildly over the top, flight control towers of nearby airports are probably double checking their radar. Similarly William Pennington plays the infantile Simon pitched somewhere between David from Schitt’s Creek and comedian Michael McIntyre with the charm of neither. Joanna Brookes, as the much put-upon housekeeper Clara, delivers each line in the style of the Mollie Sugden School of Comedic Subtlety. These outré acting choices recall Michael Gambon’s withering description of acting as being “shouting in the evening”.
While it would be generous to describe Coward’s characters on the page as skin deep, they are meant to be amusing eccentrics not abrasive grotesques. The balance of the characters should interact like the ingredients of a fine quiche. Get the balance right and it will be light and fluffy. Overegg the mixture and it will collapse in front of your eyes.
The tonal inconsistencies between the cast at times are so severe that characters feel they are in different plays. The subtleties of Daniel Fraser‘s gauche admirer of Judith and Beth Lilly‘s nervous, fish-out-of-water houseguest have great potential to entertain but too often their nuanced performances get drowned out. It’s hard to understand how director Tam Williams hasn’t been able to calibrate the performances of his cast into a more cohesive work.
Equally problematic is the languorous pacing of this Hay Fever. Coward’s dialogue here is not peppered with his trademark witty bons mots or acidic zingers so for the script’s whimsy to work, it needs to be played at a pace that doesn’t give you time to think. If you are sitting wondering if they would have had croissants for breakfast in the 1920s, the comedy is not being played briskly enough.
Other questionably choices further hold up proceedings. A minute is spent with the housekeeper “comically” collecting tea cups. Makin’ Whoopee, a song that first appeared in a Broadway musical in 1928, is randomly and anachronistically performed in this Home Counties household with the son playing a trombone and the housekeeper strumming a ukulele.
Fulsome praise must go to Natalie Titchener for her outstanding costume designs. Exuberant outfits are exquisite lace, bead, tasseled, feather concoctions which exude sumptuous period glamour. Her beautiful work hints at the effervescence that Coward’s work requires. Sadly this plodding production has all the fizz of warm, flat champagne.
At the end of the story, the four guests decide they have had quite enough of the ghostly Bliss family and make an impromptu quick getaway. We can’t help conclude that they had the right idea…
An irritating Hay Fever that no amount of Piriton could cure – ★★ (Two stars)