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A packed house greeted Dublin’s Gate Theatre Thursday night, all anxious to see Noël Coward’s Hay Fever staged by the company who last delivered Spoleto a sold-out run of Present Laughter in 2010. The curtain—featuring a large image of a beautiful woman reclining on a sofa—was pulled away to reveal the adult Bliss siblings, Simon and Sorel, lounging in the eccentrically furnished 1920s living room of their country house (you can even hear the summer bugs chirping; at first, my date thought it was a hearing aid gone awry).
With Simon on the floor working on a nude drawing and Sorel scornfully reading aloud poetry written by a friend, it doesn’t take long for the rapid-fire banter to begin. And ready your ears, because it will last the whole way through, among each and every one of the characters. At intermission, I heard a couple audience members comment that between the accents and the fast-pace, they were only picking up every third word, though the man seated behind us assured his companion she’d get the hang of it by the third (and last) act.
Once Simon and Sorel’s mother, a recently retired stage actress named Judith, sweeps into the room with a basket of flowers whose names she’s attempting to memorize, it emerges that all three Blisses have invited a guest for the weekend without informing the others. And it’s when these guests turn up—among them a woman asked by the family patriarch, a self-important, not-very-good novelist named David—that the madness really sets in.
Simply put, the play is about the interaction among the four eccentric and unmannerly Bliss family members and their four more proper, yet equally nutty, guests. The wonderful thing is that each of the eight characters, as well as (especially, even) housekeeper Clara, are hilarious in their own right. I think every audience member must have chosen one whose particular quirks they found most amusing. For me, it was Simon Bliss (played by Tadhg Murphy, who you may remember held the title role in last season’s Cripple of Inishmaan). I thought his exaggerated facial expressions and comically grand gestures were entrancing. My boyfriend, on the other hand, found them highly obnoxious, preferring the “diplomatist” Richard Greatham (Mark O’Halloran), who could bring bursts of laughter from the audience with just one befuddled expression.
The set was gorgeous (I’m still wondering if I can pull of the mismatched dining room chair cushions that the Blisses made look so natural) and the costumes equally so. When the second act revealed the characters dressed for dinner in evening attire, the woman behind me gasped “look at the glamorous clothes.” All in all, a feast for the eyes that I found entertaining and funny—though not quite as funny as the many audience members who roared with fits of laughter from beginning to end.