This esteemed assemblage plays a clan of renowned New York stage actors (based on the Barrymore American acting dynasty) during the theatre heyday of the 1920s. Dench is matriarch Fanny Cavendish, an old trouper combatting an unnamed illness with dreams of a dramatic comeback. Her offspring are Stephens' Anthony, fleeing disillusioned from the silent screens of a fledgling Hollywood, and Walter's Julie, the box office belle of Broadway. Bowles is Dench's brother Herbert Dean and McKenzie his wife Kitty, both also actors, making valiant and amusing efforts to present themselves as younger and more talented than they are.
Added to this bunch are granddaughter Gwen (played breezily by newcomer Emily Blunt), producer-manager Oscar Wolfe (a stoic but wily Philip Voss), and non-acting love interests Perry and Gilbert (Robert Petkoff and Peter Blythe respectively).
Taken altogether then, there's no shortage of promise in this revival of Edna Ferber and George S Kaufman's 1927 comedy. And yet, somehow, it doesn't quite work. Director Peter Hall manages to whip up a sense of busyness with ringing phones, noisy doors, scurrying servants, pounding up and down stairs and lots of everyone talking at once, each character egotistically vying to be the centre of attention. But this general hubbub can't disguise the fact that not enough of consequence happens up on the Theatre Royal stage (kitted out with Anthony Ward's wonderful art deco, curving staircase-framed apartment set).
The production's to-die-for casting also presents a bit of a problem. A few fleeting chances aside, the parts and the play simply aren't big or meaty enough for such talent. Stephens makes the most impact, gambolling about with sword and cigarette holder, like an overblown Errol Flynn, and Walter is a sympathetic Julie, more family rock than prima donna. And then there's Dame Judi, presiding over all with grandeur and some oh-so-haughtily deadpan put-downs. Dench also delivers the most stirring moment of the scene - describing with awed reverence the feeling of pre-curtain up excitement - but it's too brief and not insightful enough.
It also falls to Dench to utter, with no little irony, the funniest line of the night - "May god strike me dead if I ever appear in an all-star revival", proclaims her Fanny. Things on this occasion may not call for such drastic measures, but there's no denying this real-life all-star revival falls far short of expectations.