First Night: Hay Fever, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

Dame Judi shows 'Hay Fever' is not to be sneezed at, even in the spring
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The Independent Culture

From the banks of the Nile in Antony and Cleopatra (which opened on Wednesday at Stratford) to the Thames-side Cookham residence of the Bliss family in Hay Fever (which opened last night at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket) might feel like quite a leap.

But watching these plays on successive evenings, as I've just done, brings home how Shakespeare's love birds and Noel Coward's bohemians share a compulsive tendency to self-dramatisation and a marked difficulty in understanding the concept of "off-stage". The difference is that, though they crave an audience, the Shakespearean couple are safely wrapped up in one another, whereas the alarming Blisses need innocent outsiders to act as participatory stooges in their private games.

Cleopatra is one of the many characters Judi Dench has portrayed for Peter Hall. Now, in his highly entertaining revival of the Coward classic, she plays Judith Bliss, the retired actress who presides over a weekend from hell in which four non-bohemian guests are first ignored, then ritually humiliated, and finally steal away on tiptoe the next morning rather than endure another second with their monstrously egotistical hosts.

Performed on Simon Higlett's handsome set that presents the Bliss home as an opulent arts-and-craft retreat, the production is deliciously knowing about the shameless wiles of theatricality and the havoc that it wreaks. True, at last night's premiere, it wasn't just the social awkwardness of the dramatised situation that made the first act feel a bit tight and strained but the show succeeded in warming up considerably as it progressed.

Looking, at moments, disconcertingly like the late Queen Mother in her floaty, floral garments, Dench's Judith veers hilariously between striking attitudes and spouting prefabricated sentiments that derive from memories of her back-catalogue of dreadful melodramas and sudden rapid, pettish concessions to reality.

It's the seamless, brilliantly timed way in which she slides from the semi-rehearsed to the grudgingly spontaneous that makes her performance so funny.

There are some delectable don't-you-dare-stop-me moments when she overrides protests and I shall never forget her little oh-so-stoical scamper to the piano to play what is evidently her one, oh-so-poignant party piece for the stuffed shirt of a diplomat (William Chubb) who only has to touch her to become embroiled in her improvised, wholly bogus scene of staunch parting with her self-centred novelist husband (Peter Bowles).

Both brigades (the conventional visitors and the arty home team) acquit themselves with honours. I particularly liked Charles Edwards as Sandy Tyrell, the sporty, chinless chump who here is an amusingly bashful tangle of hero-worship for Judith before becoming a jumpy, nerve-racked desperado for escape. Dan Stevens and Kim Medcalf (as Simon and Sorel) expertly signal that, however much the Bliss offspring may want to rebel, they are programmed to use newcomers as props and to close ranks against them.

Indeed, the morning after the ghastly night before, the worryingly reinvigorated family has trouble remembering the identity of the depleted bit-players. The climactic laugh comes when Dench, hearing the slammed door and the noise of the absconding car, surfaces for a second from the Blisses' breakfast row and, sublimely impervious to the irony of it, snaps "How very rude!". A Hay Fever that is not to be sneezed at.