Noël Coward’s work has an irreverent and subversive sensibility that stands the test of time. Hay Fever is about a family that is characterised by early 20th century notions of decadence and the bohemian, and Rosane McNamara’s vision has created an interpretation that speaks to modern audiences, while retaining all the robust and wicked humour that Coward is best known for.
Judith Bliss is the matriarch of the household, and a middle-aged star of the theatre who seems unable to live life without manufactured drama and exaggerated affectations. Played with flair and excellent humour by Alice Livingstone, the role is front and centre of the show, and absolutely crucial to the success of this production. Livingstone’s firm Cowardian grasp of flamboyance and wit is marvellous. Her skills in high camp delivers barrels of laughter, and she carves out a character that is perversely alluring despite her hideous indulgences. Livingstone’s counterparts do not quite match up to her comedic excellence, but all have created distinct and memorable personalities that move the plot along with clarity and sharpness.
Another star of the show is production design; all visual elements are impressive. Set and lighting design are effective, and their take on 1920s Art Deco is graceful and charming. Costumes are superb and detailed, and in the case of the character Myra especially, hair and makeup are simply stunning.
New Theatre’s Hay Fever is a bold and wonderful achievement. Noël Coward’s characters and wittiness are not the simplest to portray, and even though this production does not hit every punchline perfectly (most notably when the leading lady is off-stage), it is remarkable that his story is brought to life so vividly. With the passage of time, its century-old aesthetics might look to be outmoded, but Rosane McNamara’s direction fleshes out everything that is exceptional and unconventional in Coward’s writing that is rarely, if ever, replicated.