Star Quality

Tuesday, 30 October, 2001
Review by: 
Darren Dalglish


There was something missing in Noel Coward’s final comedy, “Star Quality” at the Apollo Theatre last night, laughs!!

This play was originally written as a short story in 1951 and was dramatised by Coward in 1966, but never produced. Only now is it receiving its world stage premiere and one can see why. It is an untidy piece of writing that lacks flair, laughs and a dramatic punch. Christopher Luscombe, who directs the play, has adapted Coward’s drama, but he has failed to bring any sparkle to the piece.

The story is set backstage of a new play that is destined for the West End. However, it has a volatile leading lady, Lorraine, and a brutal young director, Ray. A power game ensures and the innocent author of the play, and others, are caught in the crossfire.

This comedy certainly has potential as the premise is a good one, but it is not brought into fruition here. So what are the problems?

Firstly and most importantly it just isn’t funny. There is the odd titter and a few scenes that are amusing, particularly the fight between Lorraine and Ray in the second act, but not much else.

Secondly, Russell Boulter is miss-cast in the role of Ray. He does not bring enough ruthless sophistication to the role. Ray is meant to be an ambitious director who is determined to make his mark by dominating the cast. However, he lacks the passion to do this with conviction: even his tantrum, where he attempts to assert his will over the leading lady seems emasculated and rather ridiculous. Who would be intimidated by this? Certainly not Penelope Keith it would seem!

And thirdly the play lacks pace and is certainly in need of some high camp! . However, Penelope Keith saves the day with a masterful performance as the temperamental leading lady, Lorraine Barrie. No miss-casting here, she is perfect for the part with exceptional comic timing. Her acid tongue and facial expressions are a dream. What a pity the script is a nightmare!

The rest of the company do their best with a thin script, particularly Majorie Yates as Lorraine’s contemptuous dresser, but Una Stubbs is outrageously under used.

The play boasts an effective set design by Tim Goodchild, particularly evident at the start of the second act. A beautiful balcony scene with a sky and rippling blue sea backdrop is effortlessly and seamlessly transformed into a dressing room. These fluent set changes are consistent throughout the play. It is amazing how the simplest of sets can be the most effective!

The notices from the popular press have been good.............CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH liked the play saying, "Anyone who loves theatre and the often absurd people who make it happen, Star Quality turns out to be an unexpected treat." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES describes it as "malicious fun". NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Coward fails to impress" and describes the play as "Most undazzling" and goes on to say, "It's perverse to resuscitate this tired old script." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "It is splendid entertainment - amusing rather than hilarious but shot through with wit, wisdom and a deep knowledge of the theatre based on Coward's own experience." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "It is not Penelope Keith's fault that we have to take Lorraine's star quality on trust: Coward never gives her a chance to display it." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Ms Keith is a superb comedienne, but wayward theatrical magic is not part of her armoury." JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "A tough, elegant, hil- ariously observant light comedy of backstage life, complete with back-stabbing, sentimentality, hard work, cynicism and excitement."

Comedy is a medium where the enjoyment of it depends a lot on ‘taste’ so I’m sure some people will find this production amusing, but for me it is a disappointing play


Links to full reviews from newspapers...

The Guardian
The Stage
Daily Telegraph
The Times
The Independent
Sunday Times

Next review by Tom Keatinge
Oct 2001

What they say about the appearance of London buses seems to be equally apt currently for “back stage” comedies; following “Noises Off” and “Over the Moon”, Christopher Luscombe’s adaptation of Noël Coward “Star Quality” at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue is the latest of such a trio. And, as is the case with the London Transport equivalent, there is a lot to be said for waiting for the third in line. “Star Quality” certainly lives up to its title, packed as it is, both with some excellent performances, as well as plenty of those very special touches that stamp Coward so unmistakably on a play.

The piece, set in the 1950s, follows the journey of young playwright Bryan Snow’s second offering (“Dark Heritage”), from first reading to first night, with all the theatrical emotion that invariably comes between. Having secured the leading lady of the moment, Lorraine Barry (Penelope Keith) as well as the latest and hottest new director Ray Malcolm (Russell Boulter), the rehearsals embark in good humour and high spirits. Yet Malcolm is determined to have things done his way, to bring his new young thrust to the piece, and not to tolerate anything less, even if it means crossing swords with or humiliating the top line names in the cast. Yet for all its apparently sinister overtones, this is a highly amusing play, in which Penelope Keith – cast to perfection – holds court over both audience and fellow “Dark Heritage” cast members, feeding off their adoration, until such time as Malcolm bursts her bubble on the eve of first night. And although Malcolm is scathing about Barry, he knows he cannot succeed without her, and her obvious appeal to audiences.

Whilst it is Barry/Keith who are without doubt the stars of the title, “Star Quality” also benefits from some strong supporting performances. Nick Fletcher as Bryan Snow is highly credible and enjoyable as the timid and naïve playwright, desperate for success and so easily wooed by Malcolm and his “personal assistant” Tony Orford. Orford himself is also a marvellous character, a bronzed and beautiful blonde, played wonderfully by Nick Waring, and so obviously capable of providing all the assistance that Malcolm could possibly need, without ever exceeding what, even in the mid-sixties, would still have been an extremely low tolerance level of middle class theatregoers. And then there is Ray Malcolm himself, the director to be feared and “assisted”, played by Russell Boulter. Boulter, of course, is best known for his role in TV’s “The Bill” and somehow he seems unable to shed that image as Malcolm, appearing as more of a detective sergeant than a young and thrusting director. Strong supporting roles are also provided by Una Stubbs as Marion Blakely, hopelessly miscast as the supposed young heart stealer in “Dark Heritage”, at least a generation too old for the part, and the fatuous and pompous Gerald Wentworth, splendidly portrayed by Peter Cellier.

With Coward playing in stereo in the West End at present, “Star Quality” provides an admirable foil to the delightful fluff of “Private Lives”. Still very much Coward in every sense, but somehow going deeper and further than its partner at the Albery, “Star Quality” is a marvellously entertaining piece, and much to be recommended.

Tom Keatinge

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