It is always an event not to be missed when seven-time Laurence Olivier Award winner Dame Judi Dench takes to the West End stage, and last night was no exception. Among the guests at the press performance of Hay Fever at the Theatre Royal Haymarket were West End legends Bill Kenwright – who is also the show’s co-producer – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Also there was officiallondontheatre.co.uk’s Matthew Amer.
It would be wrong to say that Hay Fever is a production about Judi Dench, but when an actor is so loved and lauded it is hard not to concentrate on their every move. Dench plays retired actress Judith Bliss, a woman whose family are only marginally less theatrical than she is, in this comedy of manners which was rattled out by Noel Coward in just 72 hours.
Melodrama is everywhere within the Bliss family home; barely a word can be spoken without a flourish. The actress mother and novelist father (played by Peter Bowles) have brought up children who love nothing more than exaggerating their emotions and dancing in the limelight. When each family member invites a guest for the weekend, unaware that the rest of the family has done the same, the quartet of newcomers really have no idea what they have let themselves in for, and are subjected to two of possibly the most tortuous days of their lives.
Dench as Bliss rules the stage. Whatever she does – from climbing stairs to warbling a tune at the piano or recounting the thrill of the first night, which last night’s audience of critics particularly enjoyed – effortlessly brings smiles and laughter to the Haymarket’s auditorium. Coward’s script is full of witticisms and biting remarks that the ensemble cast revel in.
Dan Stevens and former Eastender Kim Medcalf play Bliss children Sorel and Simon, who both capably add to the over-dramatic energy of the family, joining their mother in staging pivotal scenes from her career. William Chubb’s Greatham is a spiffing civil servant, and Charles Edwards’s Tyrell is an over-excited lapdog of a fan, while Belinda Lang plays a sashaying Arundel and Olivia Darnley moves between hysterical and petrified with nerves as young flapper Coryton.
As Belinda Lang’s Arundel observes, the Blisses are “a divinely mad family”, though it seems spending an entire weekend with such eccentrics makes them less divine and more maddening. A charades-style parlour game highlights the difference between the two sets of characters, one loving the theatricality, the other embarrassed and not used to the occasion, though appendicitis has never been as funny as it is in this context.
Hay Fever is booking at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 5 August.