Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Juliet Hartnett, Set Designer Tim Freeman, Lead Set Builder David Rankin; Specialist Construction Don Plimmer. Backdrop painting Phil Gazzard. Light and Sound Mike Batchelor. Costumes Claire Chapman and the Wardrobe Team.
Stage Manager Joanne Cull. ASMs Chloe Holland, Estelle Carpenter, Sophie McCallum and Trish Richings. Rehearsal Prompt Sophie McCallum, Production Photography Keith Gilbert and Phil Gazzard.
Music Consultant Ella Turk-Thompson, Artwork Lynn Bartlam, Trailer Stephanie Depalma and for Technical Assistance Estelle Carpenter.
Till May 21st.
A burst of June in May. Even if it’s raining there, though not in 2022. Noel Coward’s 1925 Hay Fever opens onto one of the most stunning sets even Lewes Little Theatre have furnished over the years. Yes, with added rain.
Let’s start with that set for a change. Designer Tim Freeman (who’s in the cast), with lead set builder David Rankin and specialist construction by Don Plimmer dazzle, not with Art Deco zig-zags, but a set happily reproduced in the increasingly fine programme (designer James Meikle, also in the cast). It’s the finest set for a Coward play I’ve seen, not just for Hay Fever, but since the Old Vic’s Design for Living in 2010, and Wyndham’s Private Lives in 2013.
A modern 1920s country house, it’s airy with upstage large windows, gives on to Phil Gazzard’s backdrop painting of a summer garden. There’s often the effect of rain with light and sound from Mike Batchelor sending acoustic thunderbolts and splashes of lightning. And a back-firing car.
Upstage right the start of a white spiral staircase, with semi-circular steps opposite are all grounded on a shiny black floor. There’s a black baby grand upstage centre, then the concentration of chaise-longs right and left, chairs all period-inflected, even a small circular table. Light wood alternates with black, with white and off-white walls. Foliage inches back into the auditorium.
Then there’s costumes from Claire Chapman and the Wardrobe Team. They’re glorious; not a word I use, but appropriate. But that’s for later – you’ll want to know about the play. Directed by Juliet Hartnett whose programme notes show she knows exactly what inflections are required in a Coward, it’s a keenly- paced production that knows what’s required, not afraid to pump the self-parody of the Bliss family.
Following from Coward’s dark incest-riven The Vortex of 1924, this is Coward’s first acknowledged (and frequently revived) masterpiece, aged twenty-five and a bit. Sickening.
A study in bad manners, it’s a mirror. The Bliss family quartet, blissfully unaware of others as human beings, predate off each other and guests each invites for a June weekend – without mentioning it to anyone. Hence there’s four guests headed for the offstage Japanese room, though overlooked Jackie Corydon (a young ‘type’ novelist father David wants to dissect, but neglects) is granted it.
It’s not just the guests’ fundamental decency and slowly bonding, that’s the driver. The Blisses swap allegiances to their nominal guests –helped by one of them, as predatory as the Blisses but crucially self-aware and honest: Myra Arundel, played by Esther Egerton, memorable as Miss Madrigal in The Chalk Garden last October. She ensures David’s bewitched by her – he’s long forgotten poor Jackie.
Sorel Bliss has invited much older Richard Greatham, but he’s appropriated for a moment by her mother, retired actress Julia Bliss, after toying with her invitee Sandy Tyrell, who sensibly swops for Sorel. Both swops cause Julia to access her thesp melodrama in crisis or renunciation – an act the family join in blissfully as it were, bewildering those they’ve ensnared. Scenas here, as the quartet play out all the inflections, is – yes you’ve guessed it.
Simon Bliss is blindsided by Myra Arundel: she toys with him but her acceptance of his invite is for one reason: to play with David. She’d been invited before, but on his absence declined. The Blisses meet their match. And Jackie? She’s not devoid of admirers. Alas the first is Simon, declaring himself engaged after forcing a kiss on Jackie in the garden. But there’s decent young Sandy, whom Sorel enjoys twice in the library. Glimmering decency she declares she’s no more in love with him than he with her. It’s a shiver of sex, no harm done. He’s free to choose.
Myra’s the moral centre. Egerton in orange hair cuts through the crass with a warm purr she can turn up to acetylene. Hers is the outstanding performance, as in a sense it has to be, delivering truth without the verbal fan of affectation: from placing herself vocally to deliver her acid verdicts; after a good faux-pass with Simon and more earnest flurry of a clinch with David.
John Hartnett’s diffident ambassador Richard, played with by Emily Feist’s amusingly strident Sorel, is a beautifully modulated performance of good manners overwhelmed by the two Bliss women, after Julia (Victoria Brewer) takes up the mantle tossed aside by daughter Sorel.
Brewer and Hartnett enjoy an excruciating seduction scene broken immediately by Brewer exclaiming her marriage is over, David must be told. It’s echoed in her grand renunciation after Sorel makes off with her charge, young Sandy Tyrell.
Brewer’s is a performance of light, where Julia’s shade is difficult to locate in Coward’s text from the start, though it can exist in little corners. Brewer locates Julia successful hammy actress’s soul and here suggests she has no existence outside it. Some might bring intimations of pathos; not an easy ask. What might crease off the ham from the humbug is a slight modulation to the everyday, a keener slip of register. Brewer though lights up her stage.
Feist herself starts with a whoop and continues throughout, with some gentler notes towards Christyan James’ dazzled Sandy. Like Brewer she enjoys great energy; though being the one Bliss without a defined art hinterland, understudies her mother. Feist locates the exuberance without fear, a nineteen-year-old’s conviction they’ll live forever and never reach forty. Sorel intimates a greater intelligence than Julia, perhaps realising she mightn’t have an act to hide behind, which Feist catches. Starting with a shrill whoop vocally, Feist occasionally needs somewhere to go for in later extremes.
James Meikle’s Simon is more sotto voce, more vocally self-absorbed, as one whose art is caricature, with sexual confidence less than his sister’s. Brushed aside by invitee Myra, he flickers with decency, but when Sorel intimates this shows an immature self-regard, mousing with mousy Jackie to revenge himself on Myra, joins the Bliss sexual gaming. Though accentually he might be a little crisper (he’s not alone here, voice-work’s a cruel thing in Coward) Meikle’s posturing of sexually sub-par Simon works, with louche shrugs and sulks.
Sophie Wright’s Jackie is a consummate study in low self-confidence and a firm sense of good behaviour breaking out. Wright’s excellent at vocally shrinking inside herself, emitting squeaks (a mouse, after all) and a spot-on physical presence to go with it. She modulates her voice when she finds it, first in a loud upset, almost a squawk; then at breakfast determining to leave. Wright conveys not only the truth of Jackie, but her growth.
Tim Freeman’s David, Jackie’s callous inviter, barely interacts and doesn’t even dissect his victim. Freeman’s character hardly appears for the first half of the play, but when he does he’s urbane, self-amused, amatory and finally knows he’s played with. He’s also upset, not by guests but his family’s correcting a geographic detail of his novel in the finale as they erupt in self-absorbed accusations, allowing their guests a gambit of their own.
His other big scene is with Egerton’s Myra. He’s the reason she’s there; they both play an adult sexual game: a Chekovian interruption with Coward outcome. He’s also more alert, contradicting Myra . ‘No! I’m a bad novelist who sells’ he counters, aware of his true worth in a way his wife isn’t. David’s a true match for Myra at several levels. It makes for the smartest dialogue, the finest scene: Egerton and Freeman play it for all it’s worth but not more, and in their hands you realise, suddenly, that Private Lives is just five years away.
James’ Sandy too grows in this play, from toyboy to tall boy; baffling through red fugs of glamour and sex to a sense of who’s available and warm-hearted. Here the Blisses haven’t been all bad. Feist’s Sorel invites the clinch her mother withholds, but releases Sandy, teaching him a difference Simon’s never learned: lust and passion. Coward couldn’t quite suggest sex in the library in 1925, but we might, with due regard for consequences. James conveys the voice and presence for this small part coming into his own like Wright, in the third act.
Jennifer Henley’s Clara – dresser-turned-maid, copes strategies throughout with aplomb, grumbly accent, a nice sense of just-about-managing household decline. It’s a miniature truth-telling, compromised by class only to a degree: she’s a dresser to her fingertips: when pushed she’ll intimate as much as Myra, though knows nobody listens.
The sartorial set-piece must be the second-act charades-gone-wrong: eight actors dazzle in a seated horseshoe. Costumes as much as set deserve special mention.
From casual buff-shaded dresses with floral patterns through to oranges (Myra) and scarlet (Julia) for evening wear, the women’s apparel is quite simply dazzling. Floral patterns over washed-out pale blues and buffs serve Sorel, and hapless Jackie wears a crush of red. Men are smartly attired. Sandy in blue college tennis gear, diplomat Richard often in white jacket, Simon in white and his father David, grey. Except at that after-dinner climax of course. There’s three gear-changes as it were.
An exceptional production in so many ways, this Hay Fever boasts some superb acting, on occasion great aplomb. There’s a little unevenness, and this because Coward makes particular vocal demands that only vocal coaching (in particular) can address: with covid ripping through even set construction, that’s understandable. It’s the only thing needed to make LLT a jewel in the crown of the entire south east.