Gay Pirrie-Weir for the Fine Times Recorder

Hay Fever, Wessex Actors at Nothe Fort and touring

FOR the past six years, Jo Puttick’s Wessex Actors Company has been entertaining increasingly large audiences across Dorset and beyond every summer, in all weathers, in the open air and occasionally indoors.

This year’s offering is the company’s second Coward, Hay Fever, that farcical comedy of manners set in the country home of the highly theatrical Bliss family. Grande dame of the London stage Judith has invited a young admirer, without telling her husband David (a writer who has invited an ingenue to “observe”), Simon, who has invited the vampish Myra, or Sorel, who has invited the pompous diplomat Richard.

The Blissful idea of being sociable to guests is peculiar, to say the least. They are either ignored or swamped in a maelstrom of affectation and faux romance.

It’s vital to play Coward for real, and Virginia Harrington’s production for Wessex Actors captures the marvellously outre essence of the play, with its tangible familiarity of the Blisses, and the dreadful awkwardness of the “guests.”

Hay Fever, Wessex Actors at Nothe Fort

Hay Fever, Wessex Actors at Nothe Fort

The vagaries of the English summer, and the differences between performance venues require a spontaneous dedication from the actors, and also an ability to modulate volume to suit not only the venue but the weather conditions.

So it’s high praise for all of them at Nothe Fort on Saturday evening. Happily for everyone, the weather gods had listened to the forecasters and turned a threatening and damp day into a beautiful evening just in time for the start of the show.  It’s an atmospheric setting, but the circular walls can play havoc with audibility, specially when the seagulls come to call.

The scene is set by squabbling siblings Simon (Sean Beaumont) and Sorel (Harriet Webb), with perfect diction and volume so that the audience could settle to the enjoyment without worrying about hearing. As Lotte Fletcher-Jonk has just the right presence as Judith, and she’s perfectly matched by the suave Peter Watson as David.

Nathan Linsdell is particularly impressive as the love-lorn sandy,  with Lizzie Briscoe as the perpetually terrified Jackie, Carole Allen as a waspish Myra and Pete Beebee as the perplexed Richard Greatham.  The cast is rounded off by Jan Smiles, living up to her name as the charmingly-scatty Clara, Judith’s dresser turned very eccentric maid.

There are some brilliantly imagined moments in this production, relying on perfect timing from the cast and adding to the hilarity of the piece.

Whatever The Master might have voted on Thursday, his wit was the perfect antidote to the fall out blues, and it’s hard to imagine it better done.

You can see this sparkling production at various venues until 24th July. Don’t miss the chance, as this is rumoured to be Wessex Actors finale.

Gay Pirrie-Weir
Fine Times Recorder

Forthcoming dates : 26 July, Marine Theatre Lyme Regis: 1 July, Mowlem Theatre Swanage: 2 July Shelley Theatre Boscombe: 3 and 17 July Upton Country Park: 8 July Regent Centre Christchurch: 9 July Plaza Theatre Romsey:  10 July Swans Rugby Club Wareham: 15 July Barrington Theatre Ferndown: 22 July Exchange Sturminster Newton: 24 July Poundbury Farmhouse, Dorchester.

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HAY FEVER Nothe Fort Weymouth

Hay Fever at Ferndown’s Barrington Centre

We just had this lovely email in from “The Risleys”

Good morning Jo and Eve

Loved the show last night – brilliantly acted – you must be delighted with how it went. Now looking forward to Blythe Spirit!

Love from the Risleys x

Many thanks for getting in touch and we’re really pleased that you enjoyed the show!

HAY FEVER Nothe Fort Weymouth

Hay Fever – Wareham Rugby Club 10th July

Hay Fever Review by Janet Jennings Secretary Wareham URC

Hay Fever by Noel Coward – Wessex Actors Company – Wareham Rugby Club

10th July 2016

‘Hay Fever’ a comedy by Noel Coward, was first performed in the 1920s. The flimsy plot is set around the artistic Bliss family of matriarch Judith, a retired actress, her husband David, a writer, son Simon, an artist and daughter Sorrel. In addition there is Judith’s faithful ex dresser Clara, now the housekeeper and an unseen maid.

Each family member, unknown to the others, has invited a guest- a boxer, a diplomat, a shy flapper and a femme fatale. The Bliss family engage in histrionic ‘games’ where, for example, innocent flirtation is interpreted as a declaration of love. This gives the family members, particularly the overdramatic Judith, a chance to play a scene where she can be the self sacrificing heroine giving up her lover. Judith was played admirably by Lottie Fletcher-Jonk, causing much laughter from audience at her over the top antics.

The family’s total lack of awareness is a source of much comedy, which relies heavily on the exchanges between characters. It was to their credit, therefore, with a strong wind blowing across the Rugby field, that the actors made their voices heard above the wind noise. The cast all played for laughs whilst remaining securely in character.

It is eventually apparent that what makes the Bliss family tick is drama from humiliating their guests in a parlour game to fierce argument about the street map of Paris. Not surprisingly the guests conclude that the family is’mad’, make a quick get away , which is considered rude and strange by the Bliss family.

The Wessex Actors Company, whose repertoire has ranged from Coward to Chaucer is now sadly disbanding after several years of entertaining us locally. In spite of the small audience turnout on Sunday, everyone enjoyed the performance. I shall be very sorry not to have this yearly treat and I wish all the members of the cast and team of WAC the very best for the future.

Janet Jennings
Secretary Wareham URC.

HAY FEVER Nothe Fort Weymouth

Hay Fever – Upton Country Park, Sunday 3rd July 2016

Review By Mar Godfrey for Dorset Theatre Reviews

Hay Fever by Noel Coward – Wessex Actors Company – Upton Country Park

Sunday 3rd July 2016

A warm, sunny summer evening in a walled garden– the perfect setting for a 1920’s houseparty hosted by the eccentric, self-absorbed and rather unpleasant Bliss family.

The mother, Judith, a retired actress and mother to Simon and Sorel, was excellently portrayed by Lotte Fletcher-Jonk, who captured the character perfectly – very stylish and most of the time deliberately over the top dramatic, yet still able to bring out glimpses of the real human being underneath.

Her husband David, equally eccentric, and like the rest of his family, surrounding himself with drama, was played by Peter Watson. Peter brought out the essence of the character in a more subdued way than Judith and consequently stopped comedy turning into melodrama.

Probably one of the harder characters to interpret, Sorel, their daughter, was played by Harriet Webb. In her first scene I struggled to hear what she was saying but this became less of a problem as the play progressed as Harriet settled into the part and brought out the personality of the ‘bright young thing.’

Sean Beaumont played Simon Bliss loud and clear, very much part of this eccentric family that is ‘artificial to the point of lunacy’ as one of the characters describes it. He nevertheless comes over as moderately less self-centred than the rest of them.

The houseparty was made up of four guests, each invited by one of the family without the knowledge of the others.

During the weekend, the family dragged each of the hapless guests into their games with panache and cruelty.

Myra Arundel, played by Carol Allen, conveyed a great deal through her wonderful facial expressions and gestures, I particular loved the very 1920’s way she lifted her elbows forward when covering her ears. All credit to the wardrobe department – Myra’s costumes shone from the lapels of her gorgeous jacket to the satin of her clutch bag and her silver grey blouse, all helping to bring out her lively personality. Of all the cast I felt that Carole most captured the spirit and style of the period.

Sandy Tyrell was a super part for Nathaniel Linsdell and it was a pleasure listening to his rich voice. The expression of shock on his face when Sorel announced that she loved him and he loved her was much appreciated
by the audience and will remain with me for quite a while. Nathaniel’s interpretation of his character was very much enhanced by his paucity of movement. Not for him the dramatic flourishes of the others. Well done, Nathaniel, you played a blinder.

My favourite character was Jackie Croydon, delightfully played by Lizzy Briscoe, who brought out the ingenue, the antithesis of the rest of the characters, with a freshness and simplicity. Again well done to wardrobe for dressing her in
light blue, the only character in the first act not in cream, green or brown. That definitely added to what the director was clearly trying to convey.

The part of Richard Greatham was played by Pete Beebee. We did not really see much of his personality, subsumed as it was by that of the other characters. Jan Smiles played the housekeeper and former dresser to Judith Bliss and made
the part her own.

The set was simple, just a green tent as background, against which the actors stood out very well and was a good choice for a garden setting. I enjoyed the use of colour in the costumes, everything being very ‘natural’ in creams, green and touches of brown. The only contrasts were for the two most down-to-earth characters, the housekeeper and the ingénue.

The actors made good use of the walled garden at Upton Country Park and I particularly liked the way that Judith wandered around the garden with her trug and the use of the centre aisle for entrances and exits. And yes, once the
actors had got past the back row of the audience, they still kept in character! The stage furniture was rather a let down though as it was so modern and not at all what one might have expected in a Cookham village in that time.

My gripe is that there were too many times when I could either not see what was going on or not hear the dialogue, sometimes both at the same time. There is no stage, the actors are level with the audience, so why have them sitting down so much? One particularly bad moment was when something happened (did Richard kiss Judith?) that caused a lot of jumping about and drama, but I could not see what it was so had no idea what was going on.

Another example of this is when Jackie and Richard are talking, Judith and Simon come on and ignore them. Judith is clearly doing something at ground level before they both walk off up the aisle but I have no idea what it was or whether it was important to the story.

The audience rows were very wide and so when actors were talking across the stage to each other there were many times when those on the outside of the rows would have been unable to see or hear. Also there was too much talking
with backs to the audience – not a problem for some of the actors but with those with less powerful voices, no idea what they were saying. During the word game, why have Sorel at the front, facing backwards? She occasionally turned rather awkwardly to the audience to deliver her lines but otherwise very hard to hear what she was saying. Not important to the storyline at that point but still rather unfair on the audience.

Hay Fever is perhaps not one of Coward’s best works, the storyline is rather thin and the dialogue not as clever as him at the top of his game. Nevertheless the director, Virginia Harrington, and her cast made the very best of it and gave us all a very entertaining evening as eavesdroppers on this rather awful family and their unfortunate guests, whose escape was a joy to watch.

Well done, everyone.

Mar Godfrey
Dorset Theatre Reviews.

HAY FEVER Nothe Fort Weymouth

Review from Scene One by John Newth

If Noël Coward wrote anything that could be called a ‘problem play’, Hay Fever would be it. He himself referred to it as a comedy, but it all revolves around the sheer unpleasantness and rudeness of a family of mother, father, son and daughter: apart from the fact that the family has the ironic surname of Bliss, how can that possibly be funny? There are two answers. One is the cutting-edge precision of Coward’s dialogue, and the other is that it must be extremely well acted.

Each of the Bliss family has, unknown to the others, invited someone to stay for the weekend. Once all the guests have arrived, the Blisses make them feel more and more uncomfortable and each of the visitors pairs off with a member of the family different from the one who invited them.

The mainspring of the action is recently retired actress Judith Bliss. In the part, Lotte Fletcher-Jonk goes beyond her usual reliable performance into the realms of a tour de force. She is not flattered by advances from an ardent lover, nor is she horrified by finding her husband kissing another woman or her would-be toy boy kissing her own daughter. Rather, she sees all of these as an opportunity for a drama, and Lotte’s performance in these scenes teeters along the edge of over-acting, as it must, without ever falling on the wrong side. Early in the play there is some opportunity, which is not missed, to show that this monster has a sympathetic and vulnerable side.

There is a most promising performance as the potential toy boy by comparative newcomer Nathan Linsdell, who conveys a well-meaning but naïve ingenu a long way out of his depth. He holds himself well and has a turn of his head that could belong only to a natural-born actor. One wants to weep for and with the other young guest, played by Lizzi Briscoe, who (the character, not the actor) is even more out of her depth. Carol Allen is the guest who attracts David, Judith’s husband – she ‘uses sex as a sort of shrimping net’ – and her expressive eyes are a delight. Having the least patience with the Blisses’ outrageous behaviour, she is both honest and catty. The romantic scene between her and Peter Watson as David is where we hear Coward’s brittle dialogue employed to the greatest effect.

Peter Beebee impresses in the part of the most sensible of the guests, but when he falls under Judith’s spell and admits that he actually envies the Blisses, it is clear that commonsense has flown. The Bliss daughter is perhaps the least crass of the family and in this performance by Harriet Webb we are touched, but not convinced, by her wish to be a nicer person. Simon Beaumont as her brother gives a virile performance and, like all the cast, has the projection necessary for an open-air performance. There is a nice cameo from Jan Smiles as the servant whose previous job as Judith’s dresser gives her the licence to be over-familiar.

Virginia Harrington must have found it a joy to work with such a group and her discreet but deft direction takes full advantage of their talents. Wardrobe mistress Lyn Richell deserves a special mention for some splendid 1930s costumes.

Sadly, it looks as though this may be the last season for Wessex Actors Company, but if so, they have gone out on a high note. The programme quotes Noël Coward: ‘Its general effectiveness depends upon expert technique from each and every member of the cast.’ This production is, without question, ‘generally effective’.

Future performances: 8 July at 7.30, Regent Centre, Christchurch; 9 July at 7.30, Plaza Theatre, Romsey; 10 July at 6.00, Swanage & Wareham RFC, Wareham; 15 July at 7.30, Barrington Theatre, Ferndown; 17 July at 6.00, Upton Country House; 22 July at 7.30, Exchange, Sturminster Newton; 24 July at 1.00 and 6.00, Poundbury Farm House, Dorchester.

John Newth, Scene One

HAY FEVER Nothe Fort Weymouth

Blackmore Vale & The Stour and Avon Review by Jane Norman

Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, Wessex Actors Company on tour

There is nothing a British open-air theatre audience loves more than braving the elements, especially in mid-June, with picnics in hand and suitably attired in fleeces and waterproofs – and an eye on the sky and the BBC weather app.

The weather forecast predicted said rain clouds would clear by 6pm over Weymouth’s Nothe Fort, and clear they did, although nobody made a move to remove their fleeces…

The audience had gathered for Wessex Actors Company’s Hay Fever, Noel Cowards 1920s comic masterpiece.

In 1924, Coward, still in his early twenties had spent a weekend at the house of the actor Laurette Taylor, which inspired him to write the play
in just three days. It went on to premiere in London in 1925, winning high praise from audiences and critics.

The play is set in an English country house, and deals with the Bliss family – four eccentric, self-centred hosts who each invite a guest for the weekend. Judith Bliss a recently retired stage actress, her husband David, a self-absorbed novelist, and their two equally unconventional children, Simon and Sorel. What ensues is a disastrous house party where the hosts treat their guests abominably – taking great delight in
playing games on them.

Directed by Virginia Harrington, she has done a very good job with a popular classic, and the production goes at a pace.

The company has brought together a first rate ensemble with Lotte Fletcher-Jonk delightfully playing Judith Bliss as the retired actress who somehow manages to turn each moment of her life into a theatrical melodrama.

Her offspring, Simon and Sorel, (Sean Beaumont and Harriet Webb) clearly would have benefited from better parenting, although its far too late now having picked up a plethora of outlandish behaviour.

The Bliss family are not particularly well named, given their behaviour – nor are good hosts – and you know ‘trouble’ lies ahead as each guest suffers a barrage of embarrassment – until the hosts drive their guests, unnoticed from the house, while they are engaged in yet another family row…

The cast is fabulous, including Peter Watson, Carole Allen, Lizzi Briscoe, Peter Beebee, Jan Smiles and Nathan Linsdell, who clearly enjoy their outlandish characters – giving just enough fizz, frivolity and comic timing that had the audience laughing.

To find out where Hay Fever is on near you go to

Jane Norman for the Blackmore Vale

HAY FEVER Nothe Fort Weymouth

Review by Marion Cox for the Dorset Echo & the Bournemouth Echo

HAY FEVER, Nothe Fort, Weymouth

MELODRAMIC farce as only Noel Coward could invent it still shines brightly in this riotous comedy where a crazy family invite guests for the weekend and then proceed to scare them away.

The cast of nine, under the direction of Virginia Harrington, overact their heads off in true 1920s Coward style as the theatrical Bliss family entertain their reluctant guests, taking domestic drama to a whole new level.

Open air productions are risky even in Dorset but the sun shone upon the Wessex Actors company for their Weymouth appearance and this comic masterpiece sparkles in every way with Lotte Fletcher-Jonk (news ed: correct) brilliantly setting the pace as the diva hostess who, though retired from the stage, still manages to turn everyday life into a dramatic performance.

The simple unadorned set helps to keep the dialogue to the forefront of the action as the four unlikely guests struggle with the capers of their hosts as they quarrel, put on a pretence of passion and bully everyone to play silly parlour games in a weekend to forget.

Supporting their infuriating mother are Sean Beaumont and Harriet Webb who bring nicely judged comic timing to their roles as her two adult children while Peter Watson is the whimsical novelist father of the family in a piece of theatre that is daft and dated but still great fun.

The Dorset-based professional company are currently on tour throughout July and will be visiting numerous venues including Swanage, Christchurch, Wareham, Sturminster Newton and Boscombe, concluding on 24th July at Poundbury, Dorchester.

Marion Cox
Dorset Echo & Bournemouth Echo

The 2016 production is Hayfever

Wessex Actors – The 2016 production is Hayfever

Best described as a cross between high farce and a comedy of manners, Noel Cowards play is set in an English country house in the 1920s, and deals with the four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behaviour when they each invite a guest to spend the weekend.

Performed throughout Dorset in a mix of outside venues and theatres Hayfever is a comic masterpiece in the great tradition of high English comedy.

Our cast is 9 strong this year all directed by Virginia Harrington

  • Myra Arundel – Carol Allen
  • Simon Bliss – Sean Beaumont
  • Richard Greatham – Pete Beebee
  • Jackie Croyton – Lizzi Briscoe
  • Judith Bliss – Lotte Fletcher-Jonk
  • Sandy Tyrell – Nathan Linsdell
  • Clara – Jan Smiles
  • David Bliss – Peter Watson
  • Sorel Bliss – Harriet Webb