Thursday 14 August 2008

Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

This is a play I know well, having been co-producer of it at one time. It is an extremely funny play, with the larger then life eccentric Bliss family, made up of actress mother, writer father and two wild grown up children. This particular cast – Belinda Lang (Judith Bliss), Ben Keaton (David Bliss), Fiona Button (Sorel Bliss), Dorothea Myer-Bennett (Jackie Coryton), Simon Bubb (Sandy Tyrell), Lysette Anthony (Myra Arundel), Simon Treves (Richard Greatham) and Tessa Bell-Briggs (Clara) really pushed the characters quite over the top, in an almost Brechtian way, making it even funnier without letting it become ridiculous. It was quite touching to see the flip from eccentric overdrawn character to professional actor as they took their bow at the end. This was also a very well synchronised event – not always easy to manoeuvre in a theatre in the round.

The play had been so successful that they decided to extend the run by a week. Then there were fears that they wouldn’t be able to fill the seats. It is, after all, August, and many theatre-goers are away on holiday. They needn’t have worried. It was almost a full house last night and last night was a Wednesday.

This amazing theatre is housed in what used to be the Cotton Exchange. That retains much of its former glory. The ringing of a hand bell to warn that the show is about to start is nicely reminiscent of the sounds that would have been heard there in the building’s former life. An almost transparent “in the round” medium-sized pudding basin of a theatre seems to have been dropped into the middle of it, right underneath the main glass dome. This makes for a beautiful foyer, with plenty of atmosphere, two bars, a cafeteria, all open plan, with a full blown restaurant sectioned off. There are also other opportunities for buying chocolates, ices and coffees during the interval – or two intervals in this case. The building tends to be open almost all day everyday and is worth a visit even if you’re not going to see the play.

It’s a little difficult trying to decide where to sit. If you’re downstairs, you’re almost too close to the actors and you can’t admire the set. If you’re on one of the galleries you tend to need to lean forward, especially if you’re short like me, in order to be able see across the EU approved-height railing. It’s a little short on leg room, too. I often wonder why they can’t make theatres as comfortable as cinemas. Still, this is only a minor niggle in what is otherwise a very impressive space.

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