Dench was last seen on the West End stage in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Gielgud Theatre. At the Haymarket she played opposite her fellow Dame, Maggie Smith, in David Hare’s Breath of Life in 2002. Earlier that year, Dench was on the same stage playing in Hall’s revival of Kaufman and Ferber’s The Royal Family in which, as with Hay Fever, Dench played a grandiose actress steeped in theatrical tradition.
Playing opposite Dench’s Judith Bliss, Peter Bowles (who was also in The Royal Family) takes on the role of John Standing, her bland novelist husband.
Coward’s 1924 comedy of bad manners sees each of the Bliss family invite a guest for the weekend. Coward plays off their expectations against the humiliations they suffer as the family either relentlessly ignores or pursues them.
The West End last saw a production of Hay Fever at the Savoy Theatre in 1999, the centenary year of Coward’s birth. For that production, which featured Geraldine McEwan in the role of Judith Bliss, director Declan Donnellan rewrote the play so that is was bracketed with a scene from the melodramatic Love’s Whirlwind in which Judith once had a major success. Donnellan’s amendments drew scorn from many of London’s critics.
Currently, the Haymarket is host to Michael Rudman’s revival of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, starring Martin Shaw.