Review: Hay Fever (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 11 – May 21, 2016
Playwright: Noël Coward
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Alan Dukes, Harriet Dyer, Genevieve Lemon, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell, Helen Thomson
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Judith Bliss and her family share an exquisite sense of humour, as well as dubious moral standards. They live out their self-obsession like a flamboyant form of high art, entangling unsuspecting acquaintances into their shenanigans, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Noël Coward’s Hay Fever is the pinnacle of British wit, transcending time and space with a style of frivolity that does not seem to age. Whether silly or edgy, the play’s air of sophistication never falters. Intelligent but not intellectual, it gives us feather light humour without ever being patronising. A sheer delight for fans of theatre, and rambunctious fun for those on stage.

Director Imara Savage finds room for creativity, and exercises her artistic freedom while retaining all the best of Coward’s essence. Savage’s rendition seems faithful to the writer’s milieu, even though its sensibilities are thoroughly modern, revealing an instinctive ability to locate the timeless and perhaps universal elements of the play. These are not characters with profound messages to convey but they offer opportunities for imaginative and extravagant use of the theatrical platform, and Savage certainly rises to that challenge. Her show is visually exciting, with an infectiously exuberant spirit that overflows the stage and demands our attention. Set and costume design by Alicia Clements is sublime. The Bliss home is rendered with a bohemian rustic beauty, and costumes although effortless, are rich with glamour and sex appeal.

A host of larger than life personalities is created with wild abandon by a remarkable ensemble, led by Heather Mitchell who appears to have amassed inexhaustible tricks up her sleeve for the depiction of a prima donna, and her Judith is spectacularly resplendent in grandiosity and excess. Performances in the production are exaggerated, but also nuanced and thoughtful. Grand gestures and overstatements are appropriately supported by its dramatic “show within a show” context. Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer play Judith’s children, both powerfully inventive in their approach, using the entirety of their beings to embody the outlandish Bliss siblings. Conroy and Dyer are charming, funny and captivating actors whose creations are as engaging as they are eccentric.

In Hay Fever, there are the Blisses, and then there is everybody else. The world seems to be split into vibrant and dull, colourful and ordinary. It is a story about the joie de vivre that we should all be mindful of holding dear, no matter what age we find ourselves in life’s journey. Playfulness is a trait that many are afraid of. In the process of growing up and in the pursuit of individual ambitions, we often find ourselves feeling defeated by the ravages of time, and we begin to lose our natural lustre as optimism becomes hard to preserve. Judith and her loved ones live like there is no tomorrow. Fearless and audacious, they forge ahead, devouring all that life has to offer.