Review: Coward classic ideal for talented Stratford group

'A perfect vehicle for the Bear Pits style of comedy'
'A perfect vehicle for the Bear Pits style of comedy'

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Hay Fever, presented by the Bear Pit Theatre Company at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford

Noel Coward’s comedy of bad manners is one of the staples of the theatrical circuit. Its familiarity masks the fact that it is a pretty savage take on the obsession with image that is, arguably, an inevitable part of showbiz. What else do actors trade in if not an image of themselves?

It’s more than that, of course: it’s a very funny take on selfishness. An encounter with the Bliss family is anything but blissful. They are a close-knit family, united in their squabbling, utterly unconcerned with the damage they do to others. Indeed, they feed on it. Those they invite into their world enter at their peril as the innocent guests at a weekend at the Bliss residence quickly find out

It’s a perfect vehicle for the Bear Pit’s style of comedy, relying on razor sharp dialogue, split-second timing, excellent casting and strong characterisation. Josh Whiteman-Gardner is wickedly funny as Simon Bliss, a suave, lazy sadist who like his sister Sorel (Zoe Mortimer) takes delight in a kind of savage flirtation with his or her victims. One of them, Jackie Coryton (India Willes) is a decent and thus naive flapper-girl hopelessly out of her depth. She is eaten alive. Thomas Hodge plays another morsel to their feast as posh-boy Sandy Tyrell (Thomas Hodge). Vivien Tomlinson is the cynical Myra Arundel, who has supped with the Bliss family before and should know better, but is still drawn to them like a moth to the flame. Paul Tomlinson plays the other guest, Richard Greatham, a steady chap rather like a bank manager, invited like all the others on the pretext of generosity but really as a mere plaything to their gods.

The anchor to the play is the maid, Clara, played with the kind of well-pitched extravagance by Shirley Allwork that comes from much experience on the stage. Overseeing it all is the father, David Bliss (Roger Harding), a deity somewhat removed from the games carrying on beneath him as he writes his dreadful, but extremely lucrative, novels in an upstairs room.

I’ve left the brightest star in this stellar production till last. Lesley Wilcox plays the mother, Judith Bliss, like it’s the role she was born to play. Judith and Lesley are each in their way consummate actresses. Judith is a star of the stage, as much at home on the boards as she is her drawing room. Lesley does credit to Noel Coward’s creation: she switches from barbed to beautiful, wistful to determined, sweet to vicious, sexy to manipulative, helpless to determined, as smoothly as the lights change in this beautifully staged production. And though her character might play tragedy to the hilt she is never, not for a moment, tragic herself, for she is far too blind to her own faults to see the tragedy in that.

Noel Coward can mask cold cynicism with wit like no other playwright. It’s hilariously funny, but it’s also a dark mirror to human vanity.

* Hay Fever runs until Saturday June 23. Call 01789 403416 to book.