With whom would you rather spend the weekend? Chez George and Martha on campus in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or at the Cookham country retreat of the Bohemian Bliss family in Noel Coward's Hay Fever?
It's a question that has acquired added speculative force because of this summer's excellent repertory at Bath's Theatre Royal. A zinging revival of Albee's envenomed “Get the Guests” drama is now directly succeeded by Coward's well-nigh perfect comedy of bad manners inflicted by the arty on the hearty (and the guileless).
This is one of the most frequently staged of the Master's works and can sometimes feel a bit deja entendu but director Lindsay Posner gives the proceedings a huge booster jab of vividly-outlined vigour in this stylish, well-cast and extremely entertaining production.
Felicity Kendal is funnier than I have seen her in ages as Judith Bliss, the retired but far from retiring grande dame who is planning to make a return to the stage after a mere year away. Guests are, by defintion, simply the hapless bit-players in the Bliss family's round-the-clock charades – a form of collective solipsism into which outsiders venture at their peril.
The actual dinner party game of acting-in-the-manner of-the word, brilliantly performed and staged here, is paradoxically safer territory for the guests than elsewhere because at least it makes histrionic wiles official and overt.
Kendal brings a fresh hilarity to the part by giving Judith a sort of growly, pouty, no-nonsense briskness and despatch, a manner not normally associated with fey strategising. When Michael Simkins's deliciously gaffe-prone diplomat gives her a peck on the neck, Kendal's Judith goes into vertical take-off with a mad efficiency of swooning melodramatic manner as though she were planning a sports' day rather than the instant renunciation of her husband.
It helps that, in an amusing touch, the sweeping staircase to the upper landing on Peter McKintosh's droll Boho chic set is a bit too steep a schlep for entirely easeful grand entrances and flouncing exits though if you want a banister to clutch and droop against during a spontaneous reprise of one of Judith's awful old play, it's your man. Highly recommended.