17 June 2015
When all four members of the Bliss family invite a weekend guest to their home in leafy Buckinghamshire, near the Thames, without telling the others, an urgent problem arises. Who will stay in the Japanese room? This question, causing much fuss and argument is, however, only the beginning of their problems. When the guests, each invited by a specific member of the family for a specific (if rather selfish) purpose, become embroiled in each family member’s desperate need to be loved and appreciated and the continual strife that seems to rage between them, the scene is set for an almighty catastrophe. When the mother declares of the increasingly gloomy weather that “there’s a terrible thunderstorm brewing”, you immediately think “yes, but not a meteorological one”. The guests have no idea what is going on and their confusion isn’t helped by the family’s occasional habit of breaking into a rendition of one of their mother’s most celebrated performances (although we get the distinct impression that ‘celebrated’ is pushing things slightly, and the mother herself says of the plays she performed in that most were, to put it mildly, sub-standard). The style of these performances, were the habit itself not peculiar enough, is more
suited to Greek theatre that drawing room romantic tragedy – the actors, i.e. the family, are very odd. What the family don’t seem to realise is that the real tragedy is happening right in front of their eyes. Their housekeeper simply observes this with weary familiarity and bemusement, and tries in the midst of it all to maintain some sense of order. Hers is a losing struggle.
Welcome to the Bliss household! Artists, writers, actors, but above all Bohemians, the normal rules don’t apply to them, they are above such things. But at the same time they crave the adulation and, in short doses at least, the love of the general public. And in one case at least they want to be “better”, although the daughter, whose ambition this is, never actually makes clear what she means, probably because she isn’t sure. The family are stuck between two poles but ultimately one wonders whether they can truly ever resolve their fundamental dilemma. Coward’s play offers us the answer.
And the answer is, in Coward’s hands, hilarious. The riot of confusion and chaos, combined with the childishness, rudeness and sometimes downright nastiness of the characters, all delivered in slick, sharp (in every sense of the word) dialogue are what most famously characterise a Noel Coward play. Hayfever is no exception and the production that the People’s Theatre are presenting this week plays it all to the hilt. But some of the funniest moments are where characters find themselves thrust into contact with a relative stranger and they are unable to sustain a simple conversation, instead descending into embarrassed silence, desperate for someone to appear and rescue them from their awful situation. Simply talking is impossible, they must have ‘polite’ conversation and it fails them. The Bliss’ carefree, and careless, attitude is not the only subject for scrutiny in this clever, witty and finely constructed play.
I don’t have a great deal of experience of Coward so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I got was a great night out. The characters engage you immediately, bought ably to life by the excellent cast. It would be invidious to pick out particular actors for praise; you believed them, you liked them, they were very good at what they did and in no way did I ever think “I’m at an amateur theatre”. This was a professionally done performance of a production that deserves to be very successful. The People’s Theatre does, of course, have one of the longest standing in-house acting companies in Newcastle and all that experience, which includes professional experience in many cases, has been passed down through it. So that Hayfever’s actors were so slick, well choreographed, and so downright funny shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. I look for little things when watching a play, too, just to see what happens when, inevitably in live performance, something goes wrong (a prop failure, line drop, that sort of thing); the players last night were hampered by a recalcitrant lighter. When faced with its chicanery they simply, calmly, reached for the spare. These are little things, but they speak volumes. Actors who know what they are doing.
I went with some family and one of them said to me afterwards “I felt I could have been at Theatre Royal”, and I have to say I agree. My 17 year old Nephew thought it was hilarious. His 13 year old sister said she thought it was “funny, but confusing” which seemed fair comment given that everyone in the Bliss household and all their guests ended up very confused. Their grandmother thought it was brilliant. All of us were buzzing; it was great fun. I was even inspired to buy an ice cream.
The set is gorgeous, and the costumes fantastic (the result, again, of long-standing experience, in the costume department particularly). The theatre is beautiful anyway and this production makes full use of that. I find the People’s a very friendly place. The people who staff it, and the plays they put on, make punters feel welcome. “Armenian solo physical theatre based on Greek theatre and westerns, Madam?” “Can’t I just go and see a good play made by people who know what they’re doing and I can have a good night out at the theatre?” “Ah, you’ll be wanting the People’s Theatre, madam.”
Oh, and a little word about the choreography. There is a moment, I think in Act II, where all of the characters, gathering in the drawing room after dinner, seem to sort of dance and weave, repositioning themselves, arraying themselves on sofas, or near the coffee, or the piano. It’s so beautifully done that it actually sent a little wave of delight through me and further underlined for me the quality of this production. I know that the People’s operates on tiny budgets, both in financial terms and in terms of people’s time, but what they manage to achieve under those conditions is often remarkable. This is no exception.