In Peter Hall's highly entertaining revival of Coward's classic, Judi Dench plays Judith Bliss, the actress who presides over a weekend from hell in which four non-bohemian guests are ignored and then humiliated, before fleeing. Performed on Simon Higlett's handsome set, the production is deliciously knowing about the shameless wiles of theatricality and the havoc it wreaks.
Dench's Judith veers hilariously between striking attitudes and spouting prefabricated sentiments. Her seamless sliding from archly calculated to grudgingly spontaneous is so funny. There are some delectable moments when she overrides reasonable protest, and I shall never forget her scamper to the piano to perform her one, poignant party piece for the diplomat (William Chubb) who only has to touch her to become embroiled in her improvised, bogus scene of staunch parting with her self-centred novelist husband (Peter Bowles).
The conventional visitors and the arty home team acquit themselves well, particularly Charles Edwards as Sandy Tyrrell, who is here an amusingly bashful tangle of hero-worship for Judith before becoming a jumpy, nerve-racked desperado keen to 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 mere props and to close ranks against them.
Indeed, the next day, the worryingly reinvigorated family has trouble recalling even the existence of the guests. The climactic laugh comes when Dench, hearing the slammed door and 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.
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