Hay Fever by Noel Coward. The Mill at Sonning, Reading RG4 to 13 May 2023. 2**. William Russell.

This being the 50th anniversary of Noel Coward’s death this splendid dinner theatre beside a millstream has opted to celebrate it by putting on Hay Fever the first of his five celebrated comedies with Issy van Randwyck as Judith Bliss, the not quite retired West End star holding court in her country home for the weekend delivering a charming but slightly understated performance. Time has not necessarily been kind as there are no actresses like Bliss today who reign in the West End, have adoring fans and are completely oblivious to ordinary people except when they worship at their feet. Her family – self obsessed author husband, skittish teenage daughter and camp as Chloe son, although nobody would admit it at the time – this is the 1930s – are as oblivious as she is to their own invited admirers who find themselves landed with the weekend from hell in the country. It really has no relevance to life today and this production, admittedly handsomely dressed with a fine nice set, although performed in some sort of limbo land should please the Sonning audience well enough But as a deathday tribute to the Master it is not quite as full of cruel but delightful fun as it ought – and can be. Part of the problem is that Coward wrote a three act comedy. Act One the weekend guests (each Bliss has invited one) arrive and we meet the family, realising, once Judith comes in through the French windows, just what fate awaits the hapless four. Act Two is the evening from hell. Act Three is the morning after. Three acts mean there is a nice chat over a drink in the bar in between. But nowadays Acts One and Two get played as one which upsets the whole carefully crafted rhythm of the play. The cast do work hard, van Randwyck gets more monstrous as time passes, Nick Waring delivers a nice turn in self centredness as the paterfamilias – he doesn’t even remember who his guest is – and Joanna Brookes as the inevitable Coward comic servant seizes all her chances. Maybe it was matinee blues that had descended on them all. The audience was happy enough. They were, after all, watching something by Noel Coward after enjoying a first rate lunch. But as a 50th anniversary of his death celebration it was more funereal that celebratory.

Judith Bliss Issy Van Randwick.

David Bliss: Nick Waring.

Simon Bliss: William Pennington.

Sorel Bliss: Emily Panes.

Myra Arundel: Aretha Ayeh.

Richard Greatham: Darrell Brockis.

Sandy Tyrell: Daniel Fraser.

Julia Coryton: Beth Lilly.

Clara: Joanna Brookes.

Director: Tam Williams.

Set Designer: Michael Holt.

Costume Designer: Natalie Titchener.

Matthew Biss: Lighting Designer.P

Production Photographs: Andrea Lambis.

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