The English institution shows that 'Hay Fever' is definitely not to be sniffed at

In Peter Hall's highly entertaining revival of the Noël Coward classic Hay Fever, Dame Judi Dench plays Judith Bliss, the retired bohemian actress whose family hosts a weekend from hell in which four (decidedly non-bohemian) guests are first ignored, then ritually humiliated. The guests finally tiptoe away and escape, rather than endure another second with their monstrously egotistical hosts.

The play ranks among the supreme comedies of manners (or, more accurately, bad manners) from the heyday of an internationally respected playwright. But the plot is minimal. 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, the first act is a bit strained, but the show warms up considerably as it progresses.

Looking, at moments, disconcertingly like the late Queen Mother in her floaty, floral garments, Judi Dench's Judith veers hilariously between striking attitudes and spouting sentiments that derive from her back catalogue of dreadful melodramas and sudden rapid concessions to reality. It's the seamless, brilliantly-timed way in which she slides from the semi-rehearsed to the grudgingly spontaneous that makes Dench's performance so funny.

There are some delectable don't-you-dare-stop-me moments when she overrides protests, and an oh-so-stoical scamper to the piano to play her one, poignant party piece for the stuffed shirt of a diplomat (William Chubb).

I particularly liked Peter Bowles as Judith's self-centred novelist husband, and Charles Edwards as Sandy Tyrell, the sporty, chinless chump who is an amusingly bashful tangle of hero-worship for Judith and, later, a jumpy, nerve-racked desperado. Dan Stevens (as Simon) and ex-EastEnder Kim Medcalf (as 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 Bliss's breakfast row and, sublimely impervious to the irony of it, snaps "How very rude!".

Expectations (not to mention ticket prices) are running even higher than usual for this performance, blending the ever-popular components of Coward's classic comedy and our national treasure, Dame Judi. The result is, in every sense, sheer comic bliss. It is an expertly calibrated comedy of anti-social embarrassments expertly conducted by director Peter Hall. This is a production of Hay Fever that is not to be sneezed at.

Hay Fever at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1, (0870 400 0858), to 5 August. Tickets: from £20 to £50.