The history of Hay Fever

As Noël Coward's play returns to the West End, Alan Strachan looks back at the tantrums and triumphs that surround this supreme comedy of bad manners
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Anticipation is keen for the latest revival of Noël Coward's Hay Fever, starring the theatre's most bankable golden goose - if one may so describe Dame Judi Dench. This as close as any production can be to a guaranteed sell-out. But the play itself is less fail-safe.

With Private Lives (1930) and Design for Living (1933), it ranks among the supreme comedies of manners (more accurately, bad manners) from the interwar heyday of a playwright whose later work saw his comic arteries harden. Coward's postwar plays lacked the leanness of his vintage period, that concentrated zest that makes his best work bubble on the page but fiendishly difficult to stage.

Hay Fever's plot is minimal, an elegant shrug. The members of the wildly temperamental Bliss family - actress-diva Judith, novelist-husband David and their children - each invite a guest to their Thames-side retreat, and it becomes the weekend from hell (lousy food, torture-chamber beds, malevolent parlour games). One wonders if Edward Albee had the Blisses in mind for the "get the guests" routines of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Like Private Lives, the play is motored less by plot than by Coward's artful symmetry. The interwar years saw the peak of his achievement in the lost art of the revue, in which the balance of the evening - contrasting song, sketch and dance - is paramount. Hay Fever, too, is exquisitely patterned, segueing from central duologues to virtuoso ensemble passages, interspersed by music (Judith inevitably drifts to the piano; even the maid sings "Tea for Two") and family renditions of the Wildean climax of an old Judith hit.

This kind of comedy demands ensemble playing of the highest order, and its history is littered with productions that stubbed their toes on even a single miscast or weak performance.

Coward admitted his luck directing its 1925 premiere. He had written Hay Fever the previous year after his first, unsuccessful, visit to New York, where he regularly visited the hothouse household of the star Laurette Taylor, where word games were de rigueur.

He sensed that he was "passing through a transitional stage" as a writer, concentrating more on situation than on witty lines, and was unsurprised when Hay Fever was rejected by managements and actors, including Marie Tempest. However, after the 1925 sensation of his Oedipal, drug-fuelled drama The Vortex, Coward was hot property and Dame Marie rapidly changed her mind; her Judith helped carry it to box-office success.

But the 1926 Broadway production was a catastrophe. Starring in The Vortex in New York, Coward bounded into Hay Fever rehearsals to find bizarre casting, not least that of the vamp Myra, seemingly to be played by "a brassy blonde in a décolleté lace gown", chewing gum and with a nasal Bronx twang.

Saying that Myra requir-ed a worldly London accent, Coward was faced by the blonde rising in fury to spit out: "Accent, hell! I gotta contract." After recasting, the play opened, only "to proceed majestically and with measured tread towards complete failure".

At home, Hay Fever, with its single set and small cast, became a repertory staple although it had no significant London revival until 1964 when Laurence Olivier decided it should be the first play by a living dramatist to be staged by the National Theatre at the Old Vic, under Coward's direction.

The staging helped to restore Coward's reputation. Ronald Bryden, the critic, wrote: "Who would have thought the landmarks of the Sixties would include the emergence of Coward as the grand old man of British drama?"

Although Coward described his cast as "one that could play the Albanian telephone directory", the production was hardly trouble-free. Its Judith Bliss - an elderly, if still sporadically magnificent, Dame Edith Evans - was unsteady on her lines ("stubborn old mule" Coward confided in his diary) in rehearsal, leading to "a try-out week of hell in merry Manchester". The dame reached a line defending Judith's flightiness - "Anyone would think I was 80 the way you go on" - and declared: "But I am nearly 80! I cannot play this part."

Retreating to her hotel, the dame moaned in despair, despite Olivier's pleas. She recovered rapidly, however, when she heard rumours of a dress rehearsal in which her understudy, Maggie Smith, cast as Myra, gave a devastatingly funny Judith.

Evans faced Smith to announce: "I understand that you are covering the role of Judith Bliss. I am here to tell you that I shall never be off." To which she received the less-than-reverent reply: "Well, I sincerely hope not, because the cossies won't fit!" Sadly, Smith has played Judith - dazzlingly, by all accounts - only in Canada.

Despite the dramas, Hay Fever was a huge National success, its cast including Lynn Redgrave's lisping flapper, Robert Lang's urbane diplomat slowly losing all cool and, supremely, Smith as the seductive Myra ("She uses sex as a sort of shrimping-net", comments Judith). Like a sleek anaconda, Smith reduced the house to hysterics in the second act's Adverb Game wearing a black dress with a fish-tail train, which the dame attempted to sabotage by sitting on it.

Smith's performance was to haunt future Myras, with her aghast verdict on Bliss breakfasts - "This haddock's disgusting" - every bit as potent as Dame Edith's "A handbag?" in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Hay Fever has been a West End regular ever since, although no production has had quite such in-depth luxury casting.

Peter Hall, directing this Haymarket production, will be alive to the demands of scoring this most finely tuned comedy. He is unlikely to meet the frustrations of Coward when directing a wayward Evans, whose constant misreadings in rehearsals included altering the line: "On a clear day you can see Marlow" to "On a very clear day you can see Marlow", destroying the rhythm of the dialogue.

Coward snapped, famously rising in the stalls to say: "Edith, the line is, 'On a clear day you can see Marlow.' On a very clear day you can see Marlowe and Beaumont and Fletcher."

'Hay Fever', Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1, (0870 400 0858), 6 April to 5 August