DTR - Reviews of Star Quality

Star Quality

Tue 25th – Sat 29th October 2011

reviews

Julia Chapman

at 09:01 on 26th Oct 2011

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Star Quality, Noël Coward’s last play, is lacking the very quality it describes. It is a lacklustre play with an uninteresting storyline and cliché characters, making Joe Harmston’s current touring production, now on at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, an extremely laudable effort for redeeming the play from tedium. Remedied by some marvellous actors who made the lines sound wittier than they actually were, and excellent directorial decisions which made Coward’s play seem cleverer than it actually is, this production of Star Quality took a vapid play and made it a thoroughly enjoyable event.

Star Quality thrives on its meta-theatricality, which can easily be rendered horribly dull onstage. Veteran actress Lorraine Barrie, budding young playwright Bryan Snow and manipulative director Ray Malcolm encapsulate the politics of theatreland in their stereotypical characters. But the stereotypes were not a problem, because they were still very genuine representations of theatre-types in that age. Essentially a battle between Lorraine and Ray, with the ‘poor, innocent dreamer’ Snow caught in between, the play, as its title suggests, attempts to pinpoint the elusive attributes of Lorraine Barrie that constitute star quality.

In an attempt to defy Lorraine’s opinion that critics ‘are incapable of telling a great part from a great actress’, I must emphasise that Amanda Donohoe in that role was superb, however unremarkable Lorraine was as a character. Donohoe exuded glamour and she is, like her character, ‘a bloody good actress’. Daniel Casey’s Ray, on the other hand, was insipid and boring. And although Bob Saul endeared all to his youthful, naïve Bryan, particularly in his exceptional closing monologue, the women in the production made it true that ‘nobody can love the theatre without liking women’. Gay Soper as Nora brought a new dimension to a role that could have resorted to the same old aging maid stereotype, and Sarah Berger as Marion was, to use her own words, ‘quite unbearable’, and wonderfully so, without overstating the comedy of Marion’s ineptitude. The three women undoubtedly stole the show.

There was nothing groundbreaking about the set, but it aptly conveyed and firmly rooted the production in its West End setting. The closing scene, in which the stage briefly remains bare, inevitably brought attention to the background which had been upstaged for so long, and allowed for a rare moment of poetic reflection on the transience of touring theatre. The incessant smoking throughout and apposite though bland costumes truly generated the atmosphere of the period.

Some of Joe Harmston’s directorial touches particularly impressed me. There is nothing I appreciate more than well-executed overlapping transitional scenes, and these were in abundance. The play ended with Lorraine turning off the stage lights, highlighting her control over everything, and leaving a telling spotlight on her portrait, which made a powerful final effect. The inexorable local references that touring productions so dearly love to throw in grated somewhat, but they seemed to please the rest of the audience.

Delightfully acted and directed with subtlety and finesse, Theatre Royal’s Star Quality was a shining production. In no stroke of genius, Noel Coward pointed out that ‘people go to the theatre to be entertained’. Harmston’s production wholeheartedly enabled them to be so.

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Alison Champernowne

at 09:14 on 26th Oct 2011

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Star Quality is not your average play. It is a play about actors and it is a play about actors acting up. Written by Noël Coward it is full of all the witticisms and wry humour one would expect from the master.

Indeed, with Coward’s plays, the key to a good performance is to really let the script shine through. Subtle direction and perfect comic timing are needed to transform it into a masterpiece, not dramatic acting and bravado. His characterisations are incredibly astute, presumably observed first hand from his colleagues in the theatre business, and his writing holds a certain amount of mystery; artfully concealing the twists and turns of the plot. A light, but incredibly skilled, hand is needed. Pleasingly the cast managed this to a tee. They didn’t labour the dialogue and the slightest action was enough to convey their opinions. For all that the characters were perhaps typical they were not played as stereotypes.

Similarly the staging was not over-complicated and very versatile, with just enough detail to give a good sense of place. Its uncluttered nature also helped sustain the tempo of the play through the scene changes. Set, as it was, in a theatre, those in the cast that played stagehands directed the changes from the set as if they were running their own show. In the main this allowed the action to continue and the wider cast to show off their characters whilst further blurring the line between ‘play’ and ‘play within a play’ to pleasing effect.

Although only in a supporting role Gay Soper gave a truly outstanding performance as Nora, a maid-cum-dresser to the female star. She played a beautifully understated part but one that was perfectly observed. Her down-to-earth character, completely unfazed by the stardom around her, was a brilliant foil for the high-jinks and tempers of the others. Rather than let us get caught up in the world of Coward and his theatrical elite she kept the audience grounded and prevented the performance from descending into pastiche.

Bob Saul also gave a convincing performance as the play’s nervous and naïve author. Although he didn’t always allow scenes to build fully he really came into his own in the final scene to deliver a superbly affecting monologue. Once more it was really Coward’s writing that shone through but it was to Saul’s credit that his acting allowed it to do so. From what had been quite a light-hearted scene he deftly moved to a serious and thought provoking reflection on the nature of star quality. This seamless transition was testament to the beguiling nature of the show; lulled to a sense of security by Coward’s enchanting script we were drawn in by the characters until we found ourselves charmed.

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