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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

By Matt Wolf

  Matt Wolf on Noel Coward’s Hay Fever

For someone who is the least actressy of performers, Judi Dench seems to play more than her fair share of actresses: Arkadina in The Seagull, Desiree in A Little Night Music, her Tony-winning Esme in Amy's View, and now Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. And guess what? She hits the bull's eye once again: acting a person defined by egotism who carries an invisible spotlight and thirst for the spotlight with her, Dame Judi not only delivers every laugh, and then some, of Noel Coward's ceaselessly funny play, but also hints at the chinks behind the armor of self-regard and of Judith's need for applause-the two things that drive her floridly, grandly on. That's in no way to suggest that Peter Hall, the director, has deconstructed the play; that task was attempted, and not very well, by Declan Donnellan in his astonishingly misbegotten West End revival with Geraldine McEwan some years ago, which famously elicited nary a laugh all night.

Hall gets plenty of chuckles by not doing much of anything with the play except getting out of the performers' way-which is great when you've got Dench careening about set designer Simon Higlett's airy Cookham abode but less helpful when handed a supporting cast who (Peter Bowles as Judith's scarcely less self-absorbed writer/husband excepted) aren't really up to snuff. That shortfall is particularly surprising given how good some of these same people have been in other Hall productions: Charles Edwards, for instance, was the revelation of Hall's summer season in Bath last year, so it's a major let down that his Sandy, the most athletic of the various visitors who descend one hapless weekend on the Bliss's country home, should seem so mannered and fey. Dan Stevens was in the Hall As You Like It and provided a vivid center to the recent TV adaptation of The Line Of Beauty, but as the Bliss fils, Simon, Stevens is unyieldingly shrill, just as Olivia Darnley-an unusually alert, sharp-edged Hero in Hall's terrific Bath Much Ado-gets less out of the part of the visiting "dreary," Jackie, than anyone I've yet seen; a foolproof part turns out not to be.

Still, let's face it: who is likely to be looking elsewhere when Dench is in full sail, her clothing trailing behind her like some sort of gossamer-light floral afterthought trailing in the breeze? The actress's whiplash authority, so suited to more serious drama, turns out to be a godsend for Judith; why take her vaingloriousness seriously if she doesn't herself? Which itself helps explain the minor miracle that it is when Dench-at 71 technically too old for a role usually handed to someone in her 50s-shows the person poking out from beneath the affectation. Announcing that she is at once "beautiful and old," Dench allows you to catch a bit of each. The beauty is there in the command of her every gesture, while the advancing years represent just the sort of topic on which this Judith would rather not dwell, as if to talk too much of age would be itself aging.

The play itself proves ever durable, its mixture of celebration and critique the stuff of Coward through and through. Of course the Blisses are ill-mannered and rude and treat their guests appallingly in a play that can be seen as a sort of comic harbinger of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? But Coward just as surely wouldn't have this family any other way. Nor will those audiences, I imagine, capable of sitting transfixed by that rarest of British stars who elevates virtually anything she turns her hand to and of looking the other way-not for long, thank heavens-when Dench isn't center-stage.


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