Noël Coward's play Hay Fever has the flimsiest of plots but is none the less a masterpiece of comic writing. Four members of the highly eccentric Bliss family - father, mother, son and daughter - get themselves into a muddle when each, without consult- ing the others, invites a weekend guest for some romantic dalliance at their country house in Cookham. Bizarrely, they then pair off with a member of the opposite sex whom they did not invite, and exaggeratedly declare the new acquaintance to be the love of a lifetime. It emerges that they do this out of a passion for melodrama - or maybe simply for drama, as their lives blend seamlessly with the scripts (which they know by heart) of plays that Mrs Bliss used to perform in her heyday on the West End stage.
So perfectly does Dame Judi Dench fit into the role of Mrs (Judith) Bliss, you could believe that, by some act of clair voyance, it was created for her. Who could match her languor while drawling a clas-sic Coward line such as: "David's been a good husband to me but he's wearing a bit thin now"? It is hard to imagine another actress competing with her lasciviousness as she commands a potential lover: "Will you lean on the piano in an attentive attitude?" The part gives her magnificent scope for ham, and she seizes it fully, but always with impeccable judgement. Her brilliant sense of comedy prompted some in the audience to leap to their feet at the curtain call.
Dench has that knack of knocking off important lines as though she were throwing them away, but they are always perfectly audible, as when she remarks of her son's weekend guest that "she uses sex like a shrimping net".
Under Sir Peter Hall's direction, the production achieves a high level of con-sistency. All the actors are over-the-top to the same, measured degree. Nobody dreams of trying to upstage Dench, but they all stand up to her, so it is by no means a one-woman show. Belinda Lang is very strong as Myra Arundel (she of the shrimping net), who is the main foil to Judith. This "self-conscious vampire" is the one who most clearly sees through the family, describing the Blisses as an "infuriating set of hypocrites" who have "not one sincere or genuine feeling" between them. Lang's performance made it easy to believe that Judith had met her equal.
Lin Blakley is also outstanding as the Bliss family's long-suffering housekeeper; her performance includes a memorable rendition of "Tea for Two". Peter Bowles as David Bliss makes a perfect straight man pitched against Dench's volatile Judith. Dan Stevens and Kim Medcalf do well as Simon and Sorel, the terrible son and daughter, who are simultaneously narcissistic and obsessed with each other. They abjure common courtesies and wallow in Wildean paradoxes such as: "It's loathsome to be looked after."
Olivia Darnley and William Chubb play the biggest chumps lured on stage in the Bliss family vaudeville of life. She is a dim-witted flapper, invited absent-mindedly by David and then unceremoniously dumped. He is a handsome airhead, condemned to say "awfully" and "frightfully" throughout. The numbers are completed by Charles Edwards playing the "exquisitely non-committal diplomatist" Sandy Tyrell, Sorel's intended prey, who instead becomes entwined in Judith's web.
Coward's Bliss family is a wonderful invention but, like many great figures from fiction, they were closely based on real-life eccentrics. During his first expedition to New York, Coward fell in with the actress Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, Hartley Manners. At their Riverside Drive residence, they would organise games - "often rather acrimonious games owing to Laurette's abrupt disapproval of any guest who turned out to be self-conscious, nervous or unable to act an adverb or a historical personage with proper abandon", as Coward recorded later, admitting freely that Hay Fever was born at those parties.
In the play, he creates a rep-lica of that scene, with Judith rounding on the guests who are too stupid to play "in the manner of the word", or who simply have their own ideas about how to act out an adverb. Coward obviously had rich material to draw upon, but he transposed it with a sureness of touch remarkable for a writer then in his mid-twenties.
Even more remarkably, the material plays well 80 years later. The Blisses' appalling manners still seem extraordinary, and it remains titillating that we like them for it. The play's raucous amorality seems truly modern. If undertaken by lesser talents, Hay Fever would no doubt prove disastrous, given that it lacks both plot development and a fully functioning last act, and its mannered, 1920s language could easily pall. With a cast of this quality and expert direction, however, it provides an evening of pure comedy and outstanding entertainment.
Booking on 0870 400 0858 until 5 August