Bunny Christie has a habit of stealing the limelight with her lavish designs and Hay Fever is no exception with a picture perfect shabby chic country house creation. But the Olivier Award-winner has strong competition in the form of a deliciously over-the-top Lindsay Duncan.
As the matriarch of a 1920s family of misfit bohemians, Duncan channels more than a little of Ab Fab’s Edina to become the exuberant, attention seeking Judith Bliss; a retired actress whose love of the stage continues on in her madcap home where every small drama and every unexpected arrival is an invitation for an impromptu performance.
Hay Fever’s farcical weekend setting offers just such an opportunity when her precocious children Sorel (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Simon (Freddie Fox) invite prospective love interests Richard (Jeremy Northam) and the steely Myra (Olivia Colman) to stay without realising their unconventional parents have done the very same, as Judith’s lovesick, impressionable fan Sandy (Sam Callis) and their no-nonsense father David’s (Kevin R McNally) young flapper filly also join the awkward party.
Howard Davies’s immensely talented cast create a chuckle-filled comedy that takes you back to an era when children called their mothers ‘darling’ and languishing on a day bed with a cigarette and a stylish sense of ennui was an art form. Duncan and Waller-Bridge are carbon copies of exaggerated emotions and short tempers, while Fox’s Simon is a lusty wannabe artist, entranced by women in the campest of ways.
The family’s visitors, who seem the picture of normality in contrast, provide a mirror in which their hosts might catch a glimpse of their – to borrow a word from Noël Coward himself – beastly behaviour. But this family is too vain to look any further than their artfully glamorous appearances, content to continue to torment, tease and transfix in an entertaining display which is, as one guest puts it, “artificial to the point of lunacy”.
With just Sorel determined to transform herself from her gauche teenage ways into a sophisticated woman and adept hostess, the weekend is always doomed to fail. But only Coward could have it fail in such raucous, slap-stick, ridiculous and extravagant ways.