Theatre review: Hay Fever & Gap Years

The Lyceum and Citizens Theatre co-production of Hay Fever

The Lyceum and Citizens Theatre co-production of Hay Fever

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SPARKLE is not the first word that comes to mind when describing the work of the Citizens’ gifted artistic director, Dominic Hill. His dominant aesthetic is a kind of apocalyptic 21st century grunge, sometimes throwing up poignant fragments of beauty; and Edinburgh Festival audiences will have a chance to experience it in full this August, when his mighty production of Zinnie Harris’s This Restless House takes a central place in the EIF theatre programme.

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Vari Sylvester and Tom Marchall in Gap Years at the Oran Mor

Vari Sylvester and Tom Marchall in Gap Years at the Oran Mor

Oran Mor, Glasgow **

When it comes to the great comedies of Noel Coward, though, the word sparkle defines their essence; and there’s a fundamental lack of lightness about Hill’s new production of Coward’s Hay Fever, for the Lyceum and the Citizens’, that somehow drains the dialogue of comic energy, and leaves it looking rich and entertaining, but somehow lacking in verve and point.

Set by designer Tom Piper on an oddly dark and messy set featuring a dominating dark wood staircase and a busy British Railways backdrop of Cookham on Thames, the production is swathed in glaring multi-coloured clothes that probably capture the look of an ill-assorted 1920s house party, but are far from easy on the eye; and its physical appearance is so distracting that it’s hard to focus on the simple, steel-strong outlines of a plot in which every member of the highly theatrical Bliss family – retired middle-aged actress Judith, her writer husband David, and their twenty-ish children Sorel and Simon – invites a house-guest for the weekend, without telling any of the others.

There are plenty of individual performances to enjoy from an outstanding cast, featuring Susan Wooldridge as a vague and delightful Judith, Rosemary Boyle as a genuinely sparkling Sorel, Hywel Simons as her baffled diplomat guest, and an inspired Myra McFadyen as Clara, the sardonic dresser-turned-housekeeper who has to keep the whole motley crew fed and comfortable.

Despite a magical moment between acts when Clara appears in front of the curtain to sing some of Coward’s sad and beautiful songs, though, the whole production seems weighed down by clutter that just won’t let Coward’s dialogue speak for itself. And it’s perhaps significant that on the opening night, there were just two other moments when the show really took flight; the first when a breakfast trolley on the set fell over by accident, forcing the company to improvise brilliantly around its ruins, and the other at the curtain call, when this fine company could shake off the bonds of the production at last, and smile straight at the audience, as their radiant, glowing selves.

If the story of Hay Fever revolves around the character of Judith Bliss, then this week’s Play, Pie And Pint drama, Gap Years, also focuses on a middle-aged woman hoping for some fun in her later years. In Gavin Smith’s play, widowed Geraldine, played by Vari Sylvester, has an admirer in old friend Peter, a daughter called Louise, and a bouncing baby grandson; but when Louise goes back to work, Geraldine’s dream of a life of pleasure abruptly disappears into a messy world of granny baby-minding, unpaid and taken for granted.

This is such a familiar situation to so many families – and such a strong subject – that it would be a delight to see Smith’s play take flight; but in truth, despite some fine work from Nicola Roy as a tense and driven Louise, it rarely gets beyond a kind of self-conscious oldie wryness, before it plunges into a grim final plot-twist. There’s plenty of potential here, in other words, both in the story and in Steven McNicoll’s production; but it’s not yet realised to the point where an idea becomes a drama, played out to the end.

JOYCE McMILLAN

Hay Fever at the Lyceum until 1 April, and at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 5-22 April. Gap Years at Oran Mor, Glasgow, last performance today.

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