Hay Fever is a 1920s society romp written by Noel Coward, peppered with sex and dramatics. Set in the affluent Bliss family’s country residence, it will be performed in Brasenose quad in 3rd week as part of Brasenose’s Arts Week. It will appear alongside a screening of The Big Lebowski and a satire in which a man falls in love with a goat (The Goat), I would describe Hay Fever as a more familiar scenario which is nonetheless incredibly compelling.
The Blisses are rich and slightly bored: two parents and two indulged children of around 20 make up the basis of an assured cast. The family is centred around Judith (Emily Lassman) played, in her own manner of speaking, ‘perfectly divinely’. She is a scandalous matriarch-cum-actress who alternates between her charming façade and biting one-liners. When told that Myra Arundel (Tori McKenna), a flapper-about-town, will be arriving shortly to visit her son Simon, she opines that Miss Arundel ‘goes about using sex as a kind of shrimping net’ and regrets that her son socialises with ‘self-conscious vampires’.
The script is witty, the cast confident and easy to watch. Act I, the only act I was shown, was slick and full of energy. Apart from one occasionally dodgy French accent and a single prompt, the cast have little to tighten up. Repartee is batted back and forth from character to character, making it look easy as they languidly recline on couches. The play opens in a haze of ennui – brother and sister Sorel Bliss (Clare Pleydell-Bouverie) and Simon Bliss (Phil Rigley) lounge and discuss which guests are about to pay each member of the family a visit. Simon sketches as Sorel pouts about her mother’s inappropriately young boxer guest: the mood is frivolous and solipsistic, and also deliciously watchable. The play corresponds perfectly with what we’ve come to expect from an Oxford summer: afternoon drinks, croquet and lush lawns compliment this pastiche of easy living.
The play’s slightly more resonant side is concerned with the acting seen within the lives of the characters: Judith is an actress, and her children understand how to play a part to get what they want. We observe Judith hastily learning the names of flowers so that she can blag an interest in gardening to her guests when they arrive. The audience sees both sides of a family that is very preoccupied with appearances: by contrast, their guests are blissfully unaware of the farce they have stumbled into. The idea of a drama within a drama is supposed to lend the script weight, along with an element of social commentary. Whether or not this means the play has a lasting impact remains to be seen: Hay Fever has been criticised for a lack of plot and one-liners. This doesn’t detract from how entertaining Act I was for me – go along with Pimms and pray it doesn’t rain.