The ECHO Players’ production of Hay Fever is a jolly good time seen from a seat in the audience, but pray you’re never invited over for a visit.
Noël Coward’s comedy about a weekend with family and new friends that gets driven intentionally off its tracks gets a glamourous, well-executed realization by director Michael Armstong, cast and crew.
Though slow going to start as the audience gets acquainted with the distinctive brand of incivility, drama and fun that is the Bliss family, the production’s dress rehearsal performance at the Village Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 13, had the audience laughing often and clapping appreciably by the end.
The stage is set as each of the four Blisses (mother, Judith; father, David; daughter, Sorel and son, Simon) reveals they’ve invited a guest over for the weekend without telling the others.
While being invited to their family home in England (the design of which from a set perspective is impressive, detailed and immediately attention-grabbing) might have seemed lovely on the face of things, the Blisses soon let the audience know they intend to be nothing like gracious hosts.
Not long after arriving, their guests learn that as well (some as soon as they walk in the door).
Though some of the guests have their own games and schemes in mind, they each sooner or later find they are no match for the Bliss family, who all seem committed to extracting the most awkwardness and drama out of every interaction, sometimes while protesting that the last thing they want to do is make a scene.
The two Bliss children, Simon and Sorel, are played by Alex Hunter who’s now in his final year at Kwalikum Secondary School, and Whitley Dunn, who’s in her final year of the VIU theatre program. They shout and bicker at each other and others fairly convincingly, and manage to stay atop their complicated and myriad lines, though some got lost in the yelling.
Mother Judith Bliss is played by Maureen Cusack, who does a great job showing her character’s true enjoyment of the ridiculous and overdramatic without becoming a complete caricature, while ECHO Players veteran Alistair McVey plays her husband, David. Though largely absent at the beginning of the show, he makes a strong impression as an author who pretends to abhor drama games but is playing the game his own way.
Judy Hipkin does a fantastic job playing the family’s only maid, Clara — a beloved old crone whose rough accent and slow, painful walks across the stage provide a stark foil to the posh accents and social games throughout the rest of the play.
Steve Hill, last seen on the Village stage four months ago as Sam Fluck in Hilda’s Yard, does a superb job of playing the perfectly proprietous “diplomatist” Richard Greatham who, like the others, is playing a part, but is easily shaken.
He delivers his dry, purposefully understated lines with great timing, to the delight of the audience.
Though the play can seem at times bogged down by some of the dialoge, and the yelling and shouting from nearly every character at times seems excessive, the play manages to bring the audience into its confidence when it comes to the strange actions of the Bliss family.
Once that is accomplished, the audience delights in the grand game nearly as much as the Bliss family does.
While there’s always a danger of sympathizing too much with their poor guests, the audience can nonetheless enjoy the spectacle from their seats, confident that they’ll never be invited to a weekend with the Bliss family.
One night, however, was good fun.
The ECHO Players production of Hay Fever opens on Thursday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach (110 West 2nd Ave.).
Performances continue until March 4. Tickets are up to $21. Tickets can be purchased at the theatre box office, by phone at 250-752-3522, or by going to www.echoplayers.ca/.