Noel Coward’s Star Quality originated as a short story and was re-worked into a play in 1967. The action, set in 1951, takes us behind the scenes of a new West End play called Dark Heritage, from the first read-through round the table, to the flower bedecked opening night and all the machinations, manipulations and melodramatics in between. The character line-up features many usual suspects: the brutal director, the diva(ish) leading lady, the second rate actress, the camp P.A., the innocent young playwright… This may make for a hackneyed list but for the world created it is ideal.
Praise must be lavished upon Adrian Linford’s set design, which skilfully utilises the large stage of Richmond Theatre (which is gorgeous, really; the carpet is so nice it’s too good for the floor so they use it as wallpaper). Different locations are set up on stage simultaneously, with James Whiteside’s lighting design controlling the focus with simple changes: lights up on a lunch table at an Italian restaurant on one side, lights down on lunch and immediately up on an empty West End stage on the other. This method quickens the scene changes, and the cast perform the furniture moves smoothly and neatly, rendering them unobtrusive.
Linford also displays a keen eye for realism, which enables him to dramatically contrast the subtle set of Star Quality, which you aren’t supposed to think of as a set, with the gaudy set of Dark Heritage, which you are. The rehearsal room/empty stage perfectly resembles every practice performance space I’ve ever seen, with ladders, chairs, cupboard and sheets all over the shop. The Dark Heritage stage, however, screamed ostentation, with its enormous backdrop of a beach house overlooking the sea.
Matthew Bugg’s masterful sound design gives a real feel of the era, and his time lapse sequences, featuring typewriter clacking, kettles whistling, cockerels crowing and dogs barking, are all perfectly periodic.
Star Quality really takes off in the second half once Dark Heritage is ‘stood up’ and rehearsals are underway. The cast make a good ensemble: Sarah Berger is rib-tickling as the hammy, “knows how to do it wrong” actress trilling her r’s, breathily emoting, and adopting a rather unbecomingly wide-legged stance during her exaggerated delivery as Stella in Dark Heritage. Bob Saul manages to be simpering, sweet and eager without being drippy as the naïve young playwright Bryan Snow, and the relationship between Bryan and Tony, the director’s P.A, is fun and touching to observe, with Anthony Houghton’s Tony dipping in and out of Bryan’s orbit.
The actors handle Coward’s dialogue splendidly, especially during the rehearsal scenes where characters stumble over, interrupt and correct each other, a feat which requires good ears, perfect timing and trust to pull off well, and the third act amusingly sees everyone in their best clothes on their worst behaviour.
Star Quality does feel like a product of a by-gone era, when dressing casually meant loosening a tie or wearing a slightly less fabulous dress than would be donned for the dinner hour. The play, despite the fierce arguments and manipulations, has a naïve, starry-eyed quality to it, much like Bryan Snow. There is something innocent about it, which made it feel like watching the resurrection of a relic that, while being funny and charming, made me wonder if it really had anything to say to an audience in 2012. That being said, this production is well worth a watch, featuring fine performances from a strong ensemble enhanced by a marvellous sound design and fine use of the stage. A well put together pleasure.
Star Quality is at Richmond Theatre until 17 March. http://www.atgtickets.com/Star-Quality-Tickets/45/1485/