THEATRE: Hay Fever Salisbury Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
In the smallest role of Clara, the housekeeper, Patricia Kane damn near steals the show in Gareth Armstrong's highly enjoyable revival of Hay Fever at the Salisbury Playhouse. Pert, disapproving servants are far from rare in Coward's plays. One thinks of Miss Hodge in Design for Living who waxes all prim and proper about the mistress's love affair with two bisexual men on the grounds that she herself has done things the respectable serial way, chalking up two ex-husbands. "One's dead and the other's in Newcastle," she declares with the connotation that there's nothing to choose between those fates.

It's the fact that she and her employers are as insultingly offhand and unconventional as each other that gives Clara and the situation its comic edge in Hay Fever. Having been dresser to Judith Bliss, the retired actress vaguely planning a comeback, Clara has rather more in common with this bohemian family than she does with the straiter-laced, separately invited guests who arrive at the Cookham country retreat on Saturday afternoon and sneak away again on Sunday morning after being subjected to an evening of humiliating games and histrionic attitudinising.

A ton of formidable, roly-poly disgruntlement in a raffish trailing headband, Ms Kane's Clara stumps around, opening doors that slam straight back in people's faces and looking about as in her element in rural domesticity as a pirate would serving tea at the Admiralty. This production allows her to work off her frustration in an interpolated sequence that turns a scene change into a delightful dance routine. Preparing the breakfast table for the last act, she gets to tap and Charleston and clown around like some stagestruck wannabe Tessie O'Shea (though with rather more delicacy). It's like an inadvertently subservient parade of the shameless theatricalising of her employers.

Polly Adams brings just the right quality of bright, unnerving feyness to the role of Judith, the actress who has forgotten how to have an emotion that doesn't veer off into the melodramatics and sentimentality of one of her old parts in stagy trash like Love's Whirlwind. Adam's performance emphasises the sheer pleasure Judith gets from the game of disconcerting innocent guests with displays of utterly trumped-up emotion. At one point, poised between two bouts of arch role-play, she even cools off by blowing down the front of her glittering evening dress. There's a curious innocence to the gesture; it's rather like eavesdropping on a child during an unguarded interval in a let's-pretend fantasy.

Adams and her arty family (Frank Barrie, Lara Bobross and Matthew Carter) expertly communicate the fact that, for all their petty internal quibblings, the Blisses are united against the rest of the world in the strength of their serene self-absorption. Tucking into their cake at teatime, they positively glow with contentment, quite blind to the discomfort of their empty-handed, inhibited guests (Hannah Cresswell Gulliford, Tim Meats and Adrian Sharp).

The cast are all very good and my one minor cavil with the direction is the decision to have the Blisses rush to the stage-like raised area with the piano when they shock the rest of the party by heading off, unannounced, into the last scene of Love's Whirlwind. Wouldn't the guests be more taken off guard if life and theatrics were less crisply separated? Otherwise, this is a production of Hay Fever that's not to be sneezed at.