Hay Fever is helium-light comedy
By Noel Coward. Directed by William B. Davis. A United Players of Vancouver production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, September 2. Continues until September 25
Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is helium-light comedy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to perform.
The central character, Judith Bliss, a self-dramatizing grand dame of the London stage, is attempting to rusticate in her country home with her selfish, bohemian children and husband. Bored, all four family members invite guests for the weekend, only to ensnare them in the family’s romantic games.
The trick, for interpreters, is to hit this material at precisely the right angle. All of the characters, including the guests, are eccentric, but if you overplay them, it’s like taking a hammer to a soufflé. And if you don’t expose the human hearts beneath the characters’ mannered behaviour, you can be left with an assemblage of vulgar cartoons.
Under William B. Davis’s direction, some of the actors in this United Players production are adroit. Others carry hammers.
Rebecca Husain, who plays a visiting flapper named Jackie, enjoys the most success. Lower-class Jackie is terrified of spending the weekend in a posh country house, and Husain plays Jackie’s high-strung nervousness like a clown playing a fiddle. Because Husain makes Jackie’s distress real, her pained silences and outrageous outbursts are equally hilarious.
The slightly built Christopher Cook is oddly cast as another guest, a boxer named Sandy, but Cook delivers a deft piece of work nonetheless. Cook isn’t going for funny delivery; Sandy is struggling to figure things out. Cook’s Sandy fills the simplest lines—“You do say ripping things!”—with such dopey good humour that they bring down the house.
Jack Rigg is deftly understated as David, Judith’s husband; Nina Shoroplova is grimly funny as Clara, the maid; and Thomas Saunders displays some solid instincts as Richard, a visiting diplomat—he has comic fun with a too-low sofa—but his vocal delivery needs attack.
Despite delicious individual line readings, Chris McBeath makes the mistake of thinking that everything about Judith is false. As Judith’s daughter, Sorel, Meaghan Chenosky overplays her subtext aggressively, and her responses feel woodenly predetermined. Jordon Navratil plays Judith’s son, Simon; his timing is slow and there’s often not enough spin in his delivery. And Melissa Oei makes a flirtatious guest named Myra into a whore.
All of these roles are devilishly difficult; they require charisma as well as technique. Both are in spotty supply here.