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Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Hay Fever (Queen Mother Theatre - Hitchin)

I am terribly well behaved, so my mother said. Always do as I am told. Listen to authority I do. Directors, lots of ‘em, regularly earwig me and say ‘whatever you do, don’t mention the whatever.’ Flat trombone player, fat dancer, actor wearing odd socks. Whatever. Don’t mention it. So I don’t. Except obliquely. A little hint, the odd word, a slight nudge somewhere in the text. Because although terribly well behaved, I am also mischievous. So my mother said. And this one had a funny mirror. But I won’t mention it.
What I will mention is that the characters in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever were terribly ill behaved. At least the family was. So their mother said. And she was as bad, if not worse. The upper class Bliss family are so self centred and egocentric they are almost on a separate planet to normal mortals. In their closed theatrical world, playwright husband and actress wife, they infuriate and bemuse unwary guests in equal proportions. And whether play acting at life or merely playing games they and their precious children give no quarter. Subscribe to their rules or flounder. Underlying cruelty twisted, with Cowards clever pen, to super high comedy. If you do it right.
And boy, this lot did. Under Nicki Pope’s superb direction the Queen Mother Theatre gave me one of the classiest and pleasing productions since I started blogging. For pace, timing, characterisation, set and costumes it oozed quality throughout. Practically every scene, especially the madcap wordgame, zinged with precision and clarity. I made no notes. I did not need to. This lot gobsmacked for acting skills. Natalie Gordon was an insufferably majestic Judith Bliss, ageing and shallow actress in equal proportions. I would have liked her taller but you can’t have everything. And she packed an incredible punch in everything she did. Charles Plester, equally insufferable husband, beautifully served up the best sort of ham. Sort of a cross between Robert Morley face and Noel Coward voice. A lesser actor would have destroyed it. Mr Plester pulled it off with style.
This revolting couple were well matched by their equally revolting children, Simon and Sorel. Beautifully attired in twenties style and with crisp and affected voices you could bottle and sell at John Lewis. Paul Wade played Simon Bliss with energetic verve and affectation and Laura Eason matched him all the way as a sibling who knew her place in life. Firmly at the top. Their interchanges electrified and their playacting with Mama in reprises of one of her theatrical turkeys was an absolute joy. It is hardly surprising that this dysfunctional quartet was shepherded by an ageing and reluctant maid with the diplomatic skills of an arthritic piranha. Clara the maid was Mrs Bliss’s theatre dresser and in Barbie Gardiner’s lovely cameo that is what she still is. In demeanour and voice Miss Gardiner conveyed looking after families, especially this one, was best done with electrified barbed wire fencing.
But however scintillating and clever the Bliss family are, Hay Fever needs those unfortunate weekend houseguests. They create oodles of romantic permutations, all totally unbelievable, and a semblance of normality in the human condition. Or most of them do. Neglect them, in casting or characterisation, and the play would stall or at least stutter. Nicki Pope is no mug. She roped in a classy quartet who etched out some beautifully individual portrayals. Becky Leonard as Myra Arundel, the vamp with the sexual shrimping net, probably took the edge because of her magnificent costumes and nicking the only taxi but the others were up there with her. Greg Jones was a nicely judged gormless boxer, Chloe Maddox an excellent nervous ingénue, and Doug Brooker an effectively boring diplomat. Mr Brooker’s suit looked slightly ill fitting, thereby demoting his status, but that is my only nitpick in a nine star cast which constantly fired on all cylinders.
In the interest of balance, I do get read by lots of societies you know, I should now completely tear apart the set, the lighting, and the sound. Can’t. Loved the set (Rosemary Bianchi), especially the realistic back garden. Loved the sound, especially the realistic rain. And I am sure I heard bacon sizzling in the breakfast scene. My imagination often gets the better of me. And loved the lighting, except the inexplicable changes on the landing stairs. Perhaps Judith Bliss insisted on it. But most of all I loved these bright young and not so young things from the nineteen twenties. Captured in consummate style by Miss Pope and her team. Even if none of them could see themselves in the perplexing pseudo mirror. Damn. I said I wouldn’t mention it. Told you I was mischievous. Ask my mother. Roy Hall



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