In Britain’s 20th century theatrical world, there was no star as bright as Noël Coward, who wrote his first play at the age of 18. ‘If you’re a star, you should behave like one,’ Coward once said. ‘I always have.’
Originally written as a novella in 1950, Star Quality was never meant to reach the stage; however, Coward decided to rewrite it as his final work for his beloved theatre in 1967. It’s a play within a play: the tale centres around Bryan Snow (Bob Saul), a young playwright whose latest work, Dark Heritage, is being brought to life on a Manchester stage. Directing Dark Heritage is fussy perfectionist Ray Malcolm (Daniel Casey), and starring as the leading lady is Lorraine Barrie (Liza Goddard).
Much like all stars, Lorraine Barrie’s light is no longer burning as brightly as it once did. On stage, we are reminded of her former glory by a Dorian Gray-esque painting of her younger self, looking entirely removed from the mid-20th century setting by her Edwardian attire. Lorraine Barrie is the original diva: she shrieks, she sobs, she stamps her silk-slipper’d foot. Bryan Snow is enraptured by her; catty Ray Malcolm is as repelled by her as he is intrigued.
Coward himself was notoriously a woman-hater, and here he explores these feelings. Tony Orford (Anthony Houghton), Ray Malcolm’s personal assistant, explains to young Bryan – who confronts the two about their negative responses to the female members of the cast – that without women there would be no theatre. They speak of the sisterhood as if women belong to a different species, a different planet even. However, by the end of the play – when the curtain has come down on the first night of Dark Heritage– Malcolm is able to acknowledge that Lorraine delivered a first-class performance, which is satisfying.
Now on the home run of a pretty lengthy national tour, the play is definitely worth seeing if you can. Director Joe Harmston – as well as adaptor Christopher Luscombe – have done an excellent job of creating a compelling, evocative and bitingly amusing insight into the golden age of the theatre and its thesps. The actors were pitch-perfect, and Liza Goddard was particularly good as faded starlet Lorraine. And there was even a dog named Bothwell, who managed to steal every scene and the curtain-call at the end. Eat your heart out, Uggie.
Star Quality is visiting a number of theatres across the UK before the tour ends in March. Full view listings here.