What is star quality? It's one of those things that merely is; it's impossible to define, but you know what it is when you see it. From Jude to Judi, something makes the likes of Law and Dench stand out not only in a crowd, but from the crowd. They are us but somehow also 'other'.
In those terms, Penelope Keith - the enduringly popular television and stage actress, once a stalwart of Shaftesbury Avenue but too little seen there of late - has it, too. She's at once as familiar as a bossy neighbour might be (she became favourite neighbour to the nation, of course, in television's The Good Life), but also with the superiority of a grande dame. She owns the spotlight, never mind the right to have her name up in lights in the West End again (and oh, what feelings of déjà vu I had as I approached the Apollo Theatre, as a result).
So her appearance there in a play, fittingly entitled Star Quality, is something of a homecoming, and Keith seizes it with bravura. Hers is a performance of the kind that animates a rather quaint and game, but ultimately rather lame, portrait of the putting on of a new West End play, Dark Heritage, from initial reading to first out-of-town night in Manchester, into something bigger than the sum of its parts. Keith, of course, is the star of the show, an actress called Lorraine Barrie, whom she channels as a version of herself.
If the characteristics embodied in its title are hard to define, the progeny of Star Quality is also slippery. They don't come much rarer or more curiously conceived than this. Noel Coward's previously unproduced final play was written in 1967, but actually based on a 1951 short story he'd written, and has now been refashioned from both by director and adaptor Christopher Luscombe into a new if not exactly original whole.
It's a valedictory piece to the world of the theatre that Coward loved and his keen observation of the barely suppressed suspicion and contempt that theatrical people often have for each other. Along the way, there are tantrums and attempted seductions, hirings and firings, rewrites and forgotten lines. But even if the stakes are never terribly high - and Coward did far better with his portrait of a highly theatrical family in Hay Fever - Luscombe's lovingly pointed production (with some enjoyable physical comedy business) draws what tensions it can from the proceedings.
That's largely thanks to a strong supporting cast who treat it with the sort of due seriousness that lets the humanity, as well as the comedy, emerge naturally. In particular, there's a delicious comic portrait by Una Stubbs as an all-too-eager to please supporting actress, Marion Blake, and a touching one from the wonderful Marjorie Yates as maid and dresser to the star. - Mark Shenton
Note: This review dates from August 2001 when this production was on UK-wide tour.
Noel Coward can always be relied upon to amuse, and this play doesn't disappoint in the comedic stakes, even if it's undeniably predictable from first to last. Originally conceived in 1950 as a short story, sixteen years later it slowly evolved into a play that subsequently went unproduced and has now been adapted by Christopher Luscombe.
Talking about 'star quality,' Coward once modestly declared, 'I don't know what it is but I've got it!' As indeed he had. Lorraine Barrie Penelope Keith, the grande dame of this play, holds a similarly high estimation of her own worth. When young playwright Bryan Snow tentatively approaches her to play the lead in his new play Dark Heritage, she assumes an air of false modesty which the audience is meant to see. Flickers of the real woman behind the polished persona keep sneaking surreptitiously through as when she comments on a fellow actress, 'she had more lines on her face than in the script'.
Star Quality is set mainly backstage during the rehearsal period of Dark Heritage and much of it is hilarious. Stock characters make their appearance: the camp director's assistant (superbly played by Nick Waring), the daffy, sycophantic actress who couldn't act her way out of a paper bag (Una Stubbs) and the leading man who's forever forgetting his lines. Yes, they're all familiar creations but they work in this context simply because they're all played with excellent finesse - the notable exception being autocratic director Ray Malcolm (Russell Boulter) who's disappointingly wooden.
Tim Goodchild has designed a versatile set that principally serves as the cosy backstage rehearsal area but also conjures the elegant world of the French Riviera in the second half. There's much fun to be had from this tale of theatrical folk taking a play all too seriously, but it's undoubtedly Penelope Keith's excellent larger than life performance which provides the persuasive impetus for the show's title.
A loveable monster at times, Lorraine is from the Gloria Swanson stable in Sunset Boulevard; a true star who dwarfs others by her presence but is keenly aware of her own charisma.
- Amanda Hodges (reviewed at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre)