Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

hay fever top

Rachael Louise Pickard as Sorel, Sarah Helsby-Hughes as Judith and Jack Heath as Sandy Tyrell. Pictures: Roy Palmer

Hay Fever

Hall Green Little Theatre


The odd thing about Noël Coward’s play from 1925 is that there isn’t actually a plot, in fact there is no real narrative, the audience are merely observers of a rather up-market English country house party sometime in the 1920s.

The house is in Cookham on the Thames in Berkshire, a village recently designated as the second richest in Britain, and is the home of the Bliss family, a dynasty that could have dysfunctional as their middle name.

Matriarch is Judith, a retired star actress to whom all the world is still a stage, flamboyant, affected and probably even sleeping with a flourish. It is a quite beautiful performance from Sarah Helsby-Hughes, a theatrical whirlwind of waving arms, emotions on tap and more ham than Olde Oak.

Husband David is the successful and rather grumpy author of novels even he admits are not very good, a vehicle for the ever-reliable Jon Richardson to shine while Rachael Louise Pickard is a delight as daughter Sorel who is prettier than her mother and always wants to improve herself a cracking performance.

Daniel Ashford is the gay young thing of  the son, Simon, with an easy charm and a hobby – or is it a job, we never know – as a caricaturist, a ripping performance.

As a family, son and daughter argue with each other, and then fawn and argue with mother in equal measure, and all of them argue with father and each other.

So, with Saturday here, we discover each of them has invited a guest for the weekend. The only problem is the first time they mention it to anyone else is when the guests are about to arrive, which goes down really well with Clara, Judith’s former dresser who is now her housekeeper and would probably have been expelled from any self respecting charm school.

Being told meals would now be for eight rather than four did not go down well and Christine Bland lets everyone know it as she slams doors in guests faces with every service she provides being obviously under sufferance.

Judith has invited Sandy Tyrell a rather sporty . . . and young . . . fan she hardly knows but, as a star with, perhaps fading looks and appeal, a young fan who boosts her considerable, if slightly fragile, ego, with Jack Heath arriving in cricket sweater and whites, young, fresh and nicely besotted.

Simon is in a reverse position having invited Myra Arundel, who it appears, in the modern parlance, is a cougar, and a woman, as Judith puts it, who “uses sex as a shrimping net.” Lin Neale gives her a hint of the vamp, the older woman with womanly charms.

Jackie and Richard

Marie Holden as Jackie and Jack Heath as Sandy

Sorel has invited Richard Greatham, who is a rather meek and mild diplomat, her designs are unclear but Richard Scott provides a Foreign Office envoy you suspect would struggle to say boo to even a gosling. James Bond he isn’t.

Meanwhile David has invited a flapper he hardly knows merely to see how she behaves in a country house environment, so enter Jackie Coryton, and Marie Holden provides us with a flapper who is floundering, whether out of her depth or merely struggling with the surrounding madhouse it is hard to say, but she is certainly not having a barrel of laughs, especially when she ends up engaged to Simon.

The scene between the shy Richard and even shier Jackie, all uncomfortable silences and unconnected blurted remarks, is a comic delight.

Come the after dinner party though, and an intellectual game for posers which flounders in acrimony and we are left with Sorel who is off with Sandy, David has Myra in his arms, and Judith, who has given David to Myra as a sort of gift, has her manicured and no doubt well reheased claws into Richard, caught like a frightened rabbit in the headlights of her advances.

With this ménage à huit in progress with Judith doing her deliciously OTT theatricals as the slighted wife, Sorel explaining to Sandy that it is all a game to amuse Judith, Simon announcing he is engaged to a completely baffled Jackie and Myra launching into Judith and David, meek and mild Richard asks innocently if this is a game.

The only problem is that Judith is planning a comeback in her most celebrated role in Love’s Whirlwind, and that is a key line from the play and a cue for Judith, Simon and Sorel to launch into the finale of the scene, dissolving in laughter with the four guests left in a sort of sanity limbo.

Not surprisingly the four guests escape back to London at the first chance and, even less surprisingly, the Blisses hardly notice they have gone as they argue over breakfast about whether David’s latest novel is right when he states the Rue Saint-Honoré runs into the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

For those who worry about such things, no it doesn’t by the way.

Their only comment as they see the guest driving away is “how rude”, with David adding "People really do behave in the most extraordinary manner these days." As they carry on arguing over his latest manuscript.

And that is perhaps what it is about, the extraordinary behaviour of the Bliss family.

Director Andrew Cooley keeps up a steady pace and has added some clever touches all helped by a simple yet effective set – the clamshell metal wall lights a lovely 1920’s period touch - but it is the acting which really sparkles with not a weak link in sight. Accents were polished and maintained, characters believable and Sarah Helsby-Hughes is a real find.

Her opera heritage shows through as well with a fine singing of Mad About The Boy – Coward's song of unrequited love for a film star. It was never in the original play – it didn’t appear until a review in 1932 – but fitted in well.

There may be no plot, or real story but it is still a most entertaing evening of a fine, well acted production. To 03-02-18

Roger Clarke


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