First Night: A `Hay Fever' that is not to be sneezed at

First Night Hay Fever The Savoy Theatre London
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The Independent Online
IN WHOSE home would you rather weekend? Chez George and Martha, the campus couple with their twisted games from Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Or with suburban, sadistically helpful Beverley from Abigail's Party? Or in the Cookham country retreat of the bohemian Bliss family in Noel Coward's Hay Fever? It's a tough choice because, in some ways, overnighting with the Macbeths would be a good deal more soothing than any of these options.

The ritual humiliation of guests is an evergreen topic for dramatists, but at least at the first two households you wouldn't also have to put up with displays of "artistic" temperament. At the Bliss establishment, where father is anovelist and mother is a retired, much-loved actress planning a comeback, such volatile disorder is the order of the day.

On the arty background front, Declan Donnellan's hilariously over-the- top revival at The Savoy ups the pollen count of Hay Fever. In a startling twist, the proceedings begin not in the Bliss home but on stage during a performance of Love's Whirlwind, the melodrama of fallen women and revelations of fatherhood that Judith is planning to revive. Her family veers, tongue-in-cheek, into re-enactments of the play, much to the bafflement of their guests.

Replete with doomy gothic setting, lashings of thunder and lightning and deathless exchanges ("Hush, isn't that little Pam crying - !" "Yes, she'll cry more, poor mite, when she realises her mother is a -"), this opening establishes the madly theatrical turns on which life at the Blisses is patterned.

And in the majestically unceremonious way Geraldine McEwan's sublime Judith dumps the dummy version of the beloved "little Pam" to continue her histrionics unhampered, it offers a cheeky foretaste of the outrageously negligent parenthood on view in the present.

McEwan is in scandalously camp good form. Able to switch from squiffy drunkenness to beady alertness when there's the chance for one of her "big moments" of feigned romance or renunciation, this Judith shows you the tough old pro behind the fey, quavering front.

She's surrounded by an excellent cast in which Malcolm Sinclair gives a particularly appealing portrait of tearfully stricken urbanity as the stuffy diplomat guest, and Monica Dolan and Stephen Mangan are the disturbed Bliss children. All in all, a Hay Fever that's not to be sneezed at.

Paul Taylor