What is it about plays dealing with the business of mounting a production which keeps audiences away (the exception being Noises Off)? Is it that – though we enjoy watching a performance on stage or screen, like to visit the locations used in filming and eagerly gobble up gossip about actors’ lifestyles – we only want to accept the magic at face value, not to know how it has been achieved?
Noël Coward had two shots at Star Quality, first as a short story and then as a play, not staged during his lifetime. Christopher Luscombe’s 2001 adaptation keeps the story in the early 1950s, when the West End was dominated by managements, such as that of Binkie Beaumont, which mounted sumptuous, well-cast productions designed to appeal to a loyal audience which liked fine acting, a good story and well-written dialogue.
Angry university-educated, ex-service young men were just beginning to infiltrate this world. Such a one is Ray Malcolm, who’s directing the first play accepted for commercial production by Bryan Snow. Lorraine Barrie is the actress chosen to star, along with a constellation of lesser lights, at least two of whom are rapidly fading. We meet them all on stage from the initial reading through to the first night in London after a try-out provincial tour.
In Joe Harmston’s production, the key character emerges as neither the equally manipulative Ray and Lorraine but Ray’s professional and personal partner Tony Orford. Anthony Houghton makes his carefully controlled campness very attractive and thoroughly credible as he smoothes over crises with a healthy measure of cynicism and gently knots up a tangle of loose ends. Bob Saul is engaging as Bryan, clutching his hopes of fame and fortune to his chest as he realises that the future of his creation is now in other hands.
Daniel Casey as Ray has the right arrogance for a man who loves theatre but would prefer not to have to deal with actors, especially those who don’t (can’t) measure up to his own vision. Chief among these is Marion Blake (Sarah Berger), a performer who really only knows one way of acting a secondary role – and is aware that it’s not ultimately good enough. There’s also an excellent cameo by Gay Soper of Nora, Lorraine’s housekeeper and dresser who’s seen it all before – and knows that she’ll see it again.
As Lorraine, Amanda Donohoe shows someone who’s learnt to get her own way through a subtle mixture of charm and hard-nosed determination. The initial meeting at her house with Bryan and her restaurant discussion with Ray flares both aspects of the character into life. The other members of the Dark Heritage cast show to advantage in Adrian Linford’s quick-change settings against the starkness of an undressed stage. There’s also the most adorable of dogs. Take a solo bow, Lola.