I certainly wouldn’t want to be a house guest with the Bliss family, but watching their antics in Howard Davies’ marvellous new production at The Noel Coward Theatre is an absolute delight. Bunny Christie has dispensed with the usual beautifully decorated twenties drawing room, opting instead for a chaotic space filled with Simon Bliss’s terrible nude canvases. This new take on the bohemian Bliss’s home sets the scene perfectly; we know immediately that this is no ordinary family about to embark on no ordinary weekend in the country.
Various house guests are due to descend upon this less than visitor friendly household, each one a surprise to the other members of the family. The predatory, ‘resting’ actress Judith Bliss, played to sexy and comic perfection by Lindsay Duncan, has invited a young infatuated male fan. Her daughter, Sorrel, in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s more than capable hands, is gauche and gruff in equal measure and is expectantly awaiting the arrival of a buttoned-up diplomat. Jeremy Northam is extremely funny, expertly highlighting this poor man’s rising anxiety. Meanwhile Mr. Bliss, the always watchable Kevin R. McNally, has decided to spend the weekend ‘observing’ a young cockney flapper. Amy Morgan really manages to elicit our sympathy as she becomes the butt of this heartless family’s taunts and, whilst one of my favourite actresses, Olivia Colman, seems to be slightly uncomfortable in the role of the predatory Myra Arundel, Freddie Fox, as brattish Simon Bliss, is a joy to behold. The sibling bickering between him and Phoebe is totally believable.
The rain we see streaming down the set’s windows mirrors the relentless discomfort these poor house guests have to endure. They are there purely as walk-on parts in a Bliss family theatrical production. Judith’s need to turn her life into a romantic melodrama has filtered down to the rest of her brood, so that sincerity has flown totally out of, yes you’ve guessed it, the window.
This production highlights all Coward’s witty dialogue, making it appear new and even funnier than ever. I particularly loved Lindsay Duncan’s “turn” with Jeremy Northam on the sofa. Her “can you punt” and shocked cry of “Richard” has to be the benchmark for anyone attempting to portray La Bliss, because underneath the exaggeration lies an element of truth. We totally believe in her and her family.
I sat two rows back and felt myself squirming with probably the same amount of discomfort as the characters on stage, because Howard Davies allowed a couple of pauses to go on almost too long, but not quite – pure genius. But that to me sums up the whole production. I urge you to give youself a treat and see Coward as he should be played.