The Bliss family are gorgons. Simon and Sorel, two late-teen siblings, bicker and chat whilst their mother, Judith, an ageing actress, wafts around the house with tragedy trailing from her poised wrists, and a mischievous glint in her eye. Their father you don't see until 20 minutes into the play, an irritable, rich novelist, whose works, by his own admission, are 'very bad'.
Oh, the wonderful, heady chaos this family operate in. The walls are strewn with Simon's paintings, cigarettes are available from every cranny of the house, and when Judith comes in from learning the names of all the flowers in the garden she artfully dumps a large clump of them into a bucket. This is fantastic, I thought. This is wonderful. This is... my family.
Well, not really. That would be unfair on my family. We do not have a disorderly house (just my room), nor do we burst into melodramatic flourishes at the slightest push, NOR, I hasten to add, do we torment guests. But the buzz and the lightness of touch and the occasional KA-BOOM is very much us. The only thing I would like to steal from the Bliss family is that everyone calls everyone else, regardless of relationship, 'Darling' *insert appropriate drawl*. I've attempted to introduce this. So far, no-one's really behind me.
I'll keep working on them, promise.
The costume and set designer, Bunny Christie (great name, Bunny), winner of two Olivier awards (one last year) is clearly a genius; the set soared up, creating the illusion of wonderful space and air in what is quite a small theatre, and the mottled grey of the walls yelled 'UPPER MIDDLE CLASS BOHEMIANS' at you, in the absolutely best way possible. Chairs were supported by books, shawls were draped glitzily over every single item of furniture, and the stairs had no banisters. Perfect. Plus, I want every single item of costume that was worn on that stage, most ESPECIALLY the one seen above. It suited Judith down to a proverbial 't' - billowing, breezy, and deeply dramatic, it complimented every single line.
Lindsay Duncan also suited Judith down to a 't'. I was actually sent to watch 'Hay Fever' because of her. An English teacher at my school - who also doubles up as my director in Polly Stenham's 'That Face' - urged me to go, as my character in 'That Face', Martha, is similar to Judith in many ways... though she's not as good a person... Martha was also played by Lindsay Duncan at the Royal Court when it opened. TA-DA. Research AND an afternoon out.
Needless to say, she was born for the role.
Hay Fever seems to be one of those ensemble plays where you cannot have a weak link - you just can't afford to. Everyone in this production flew with it - and clearly enjoyed themselves. Jeremy Northam, in a break from his usual suave, sexy roles, played a bumbling, proper 'diplomatist', and Olivia Colman's turn as Ms Arundel, the only one of the unfortunate guests to actually accuse the Bliss family of being horrific, was highly enjoyable.
The kids were great. Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Sorel Bliss tapped into that hurrah-jolly-hockey-sticks-and-pudding area of her vocal chords, and her stature - tall, slightly awkward, full of wild gestures with long arms - lent her that air of girl-woman that I'm sure Coward would have wanted to play on. She added humour to lines which, having bought and read the script, are not necessarily inherently funny. Freddie Fox (yes, a new one!) was as camp as a camp thing as Simon... his fabulously floppy hair was engrossing. So was he, but I enjoyed his hair too.
One of my favourite moments - alongside Sorel's bark of 'I AM FEMININE' - was a moment between husband and wife, with David played by Kevin R McNally. David clings to Ms Arundel as she tries desperately to escape, and presses her face into his chest, leaving her helpless aside from a wiggling bottom. In an echo of two earlier scenes between Sorel and Simon and their respective guests, Judith takes full control of the situation and affects wistfulness and vulnerability and, with the air of a wounded deer, 'gives' Ms Arundel to David, much to the astonishment and panic of the former. With Arundel's face pressed into the husband's chest, David and Judith exchange a silent but hearty laugh. As Sorel explains to her guest, Sandy:
'One always plays up to mother in this house; it's a sort of unwritten law.'
And so we see how the Bliss's work. Everyone plays up to mother, everyone plays up to each other. Other people will have to work it out for themselves. Lovely, lovely us.
On second thoughts, I'm really glad that's not my family.