Pembroke New Cellars, 7pm, until Sat 24 Nov
Hay Fever is defined as an allergy to pollen… or indeed a negative reaction to the emergence of a new Spring. Over the course of Noel Coward’s early play this phenomenon is reversed, with the new guests of the Bliss Family experiencing horror at their ludicrous attempts to stir up their emotional stagnation. Yet the calibre of performance in this cast, composed almost entirely of freshers, was nothing to be sniffed at.
Overall the direction was solid, successfully evoking this comedy of manners and identifying with its textual demands. The set was beautiful, yet sufficiently claustrophobic. My attention was captivated throughout, and the experience was enjoyable overall; my only big issue was occasional failure to manipulate the tone, leaving the endings to some of the acts (especially the first) feeling abrupt and anticlimactic. Admittedly the end of act one was meant to be awkward; however this felt less icy than impatient and manipulated. While the most melodramatic scenes were worked through well, the more awkward or disillusioned scenes required a little more integrity to work.
This demand for integrity in the subtler parts of the performance applies throughout. Simon Bliss (John King) excelled in the moments of hormonally-charged melodrama, yet his talent needed a little coaxing from the cocoon of his slightly hesitant first scene, in which he unfortunately seemed a little disillusioned with his character’s disillusionment. Likewise his father, David (Mark Bittlestone) took a little time to step into his role, but finally arrived with great flair, navigating his character’s nuances with a convincing fluency. Sorel (Zoe Walker) performed charmingly, confident in her emotional range and promising a great deal of future potential; Myra meanwhile (Maria Bergamasco) experienced periods, particularly during her scenes of flirtation, where she was barely able to suppress her own laughter, at the consequence of completely losing her character’s composure – a shame considering her shining talent in her other scenes. The romantic eagerness of Sandy (Jamie Green) was convincing enough, while Clara (Nine Van Strydonck) and Jackie (Steph Spreadborough) often felt a little bit A-level (although this could greatly improve with an increase in confidence). Kudos to Richard (Archie Lodge) who played his part fantastically; his ability to coax out the comedy through his scenes of awkward silence was more than sufficient. His integrity to personal character detail shone through especially on stage, yet his confidence seemed almost dwarfed by the colossal performance of Judith (Freya Mead) who practically bled charisma with an utterly flawless performance. For all her melodramatic bombast, the fact that the audience were left as charmed as her victims, actually wanting to believe in her “feather-bed of false emotions” was something requiring great subtlety, and exactly what this play demanded.
While this play is ultimately lacking in grandiose twists of phrase or exultant wit, the farce is sufficiently funny, and the Pembroke Players make the play work. Despite the simplicity of the script the audience is strung along under the spell of the Bliss family, and one is left just as amused as we are baffled. With that success, I look forward to seeing something a little cleverer – and to how well they’ll rise to the challenge.