Hay Fever, by Noel Coward | Directed by Imara Savage

Sydney Theatre Company (https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au) | Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney | Until 21 May

Well, who would have thought Noel Coward could resonate into the 21st century and, furthermore, speak to an antipodean audience?  Such are the powers of theatre and the universality of families and the skills of the STC.

Written in 1925, Hay Fever is a comedy of manners that focuses on Mr and Mrs Bliss, Judith and David (Heather Mitchell and Tony Llewellyn-Jones), who live in the country. Judith has recently retired from the stage whilst David spends his days locked in his study writing his novel.

 They have two ‘adult’ children, Simon and Sorel (Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer), both single and still living at home. On this particular weekend, with romance in mind, Sorel has invited Richard Greatham, a diplomat (Alan Dukes), whilst Simon has invited Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson).

Unknown to both siblings, each parent has also invited a guest for, maybe, the same reason. Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville) has been invited down by Judith, because of his ‘sporting attributes’, and David invites Jackie Coryton, (Briallen Clarke), a fan of his work.

It is left to Clara, the housekeeper (Genevieve Lemon) to attempt to organise accommodation and food for the unexpected guests, which she does with comedic aplomb.

Imara Savage’s astute and highly synchronised direction balances these absurdly dysfunctional characters, that transcend time, to appear totally plausible. Even as the social interactions become more and more bizarre  — and as the partner-swapping begins — it is all totally believable.

Of course, to make this all work everything has to revolve around Judith, and Heather Mitchell gives an outstanding performance as the eccentric and ageing actress. Bohemian at heart but unstable and egocentric, and even worse a lush, she has no shame. Savage’s intelligent direction allows Mitchell to be larger than life whilst curtailing her to the confines to modern credibility.

The casting of this production is nothing short of a triumph. On display are the outstanding skills of an ensemble that all bring conviction and credibility to their roles as they are continually thrown into farcical and melodramatic scenes as Judith overreacts to situations that do not really exist. There are so many very, very funny scenes — the Adverb game, to name just one, had the audience on opening night laughing out loud continuously.

Alicia Clements’ sumptuous set design is almost a character itself, displaying as it does the back stories of the family, creating tension and altering the mood of the guests as chaos and disarray abound. The French doors not only evoke the period but provide escape from the interior madness into the exterior elements and the always-to-be-expected rain.

This is Coward’s masterpiece and this a masterful production that not only reminds us how much fun theatre is but also reminds us that the family can be a safe place where people can follow their own rules of personal interaction. Do not miss this! Thumbs up!

Tom Conroy and Helen Thomson. All images: Lisa Tomasetti.

Heather Mitchell.

Heather Mitchell and Helen Thomson.

Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Harriet Dyer and Tony Llewellyn-Jones.