Noël Coward (1899-1973) once said of star quality: “I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got it.” A new free exhibition at the National Theatre celebrating the life, work and art of Coward demonstrates the point. Star Quality: Aspects of Noël Coward opened last night (21 January 2008) at the National Theatre, where it remains on view in the NT Olivier foyer until 29 March.

The exhibition, curated by Rosy Runciman, includes photographs, letters, costumes, paintings, theatre designs and memorabilia and offers new perspectives on the public life of the celebrity polymath as well as glimpses into his secret wartime activities, his lesser-known talent as an artist and his work as President of the Actors’ Orphanage. One of the highlights of the exhibition is Coward’s trademark silk, polka-dot dressing gown and monogrammed handkerchief that will be on show alongside the sumptuous costume worn by Edith Evans as Judith Bliss in the National’s 1964 production of Hay Fever.

A selection of Coward’s correspondence with prominent 20th-century figures such as Laurence Olivier, David Lean and Richard Attenborough are also on display. An hour-long DVD accompanying the exhibition features interviews with Coward, a selection of photos taken throughout his life and some of his most famous songs, including “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.

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For Whatsonstage.com TV, our camera crew was on hand at the National Theatre for the opening Star Quality: Aspects of Noël Coward to find out what made the man – this exhibition celebrating him – so special. Interviewees include: impresario Cameron Mackintosh (who recently renamed one of his West End playhouses after Coward), Richard Attenborough, Diana Rigg, Alistair McGowan, curator Rosy Runciman and Richard Mangan from the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection, which has loaned many items for the exhibition.

Still a Theatreland staple, Coward’s many plays include Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, Present Laughter (just seen at the National with Alex Jennings) and The Vortex (returning to the West End next month in a Peter Hall production starring Felicity Kendal). Amongst his notable screenplays are In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter (newly adapted for the stage by Kneehigh).

Star Quality: Aspects of Noël Coward is supported by the Noël Coward Foundation, Samuel French Ltd, Methuen Drama, Ten Chimneys Foundation and Warner/Chappell Music Ltd. Admission is free. The exhibition also coincides with the DVD release of The Noël Coward Collection, a 19-hour, seven-disc box set offering a treasury of the master’s works.

- by Terri Paddock