Tempers, tantrums, and treachery - and that’s only the backstage drama in Star Quality, Noel Coward’s parting shot to the tumultuous theatrical world which had been his home for so many years.
The Master based the play on one of his short stories and although written in 1967 it wasn’t performed until the mid-80s. This version is adapted by Christopher Luscombe from the original novella and the unperformed play, and there is constant evidence of Coward’s barbed wit and biting satire throughout as Joe Harmston directs (even the busy scene changes, with tapping typewriter, bustling cast moving the set, and a swell of glorious music are a treat).
The piece is about an exciting new work by a fresh-faced young playwright, and features the build-up to opening night - from the engagement of the leading lady (a demanding star on the wane) to rewrites and rehearsals.
Bob Saul is a real discovery as the innocent writer Bryan Snow and there’s a genuine sense of his character’s growth and maturity, from initial starstruck naivety to the delivery of the final speech with life lessons learned along the way.
There are some great performances from the supporting cast: Gay Soper, too little seen as a maid-cum-dresser; Sarah Berger’s second-rate co-star; and Anthony Houghton, making the most of the all-knowing play director’s camp and sometimes wistful personal assistant.
So far, so good in a play set in 1951 and just managing to escape looking too dated.
But here’s the rub: the two leading players are great actors but just too nice. Liza Goddard and Daniel Casey are always good value but you want to cuddle them rather than love to hate them and neither had the gravitas the roles require.
The role of Lorraine Barrie demands a megalomaniacal bitchiness at the level of Joan Collins delivering Dynasty-style put-downs and diva strops.
Liza Goddard (replacing Amanda Donohoe mid-tour) is far too sweet in a role that has admittedly eluded several great performers. She is a darling rather than a DAH-ling, and those on the other end of this theatrical grande dame’s remarks are more likely to feel they have been savaged by a Shih-tzu than mauled by a Rottweiler.
Likewise Daniel Casey as manipulative and acerbic director Ray Malcolm. He is charming, but too saccharine where he should be acidic. When these two characters face each other, this should be a battle of wit and mock horror reactions, but they are always likeable and the clash of egos becomes little more than a series of hissy fits.
Judging by the reaction to other productions of this play in the past, it would seem we are still awaiting the definitive version before we can judge if this is a glorious farewell from the Master or just an ill-tempered rant.