There’s a feeling you get about ten minutes into a Noel Coward play. The lights have come up, the set has been admired, the opening salvoes exchanged and then – whether it’s Hay Fever, Present Laughter or Private Lives – you realize that we’re in here for the duration. It’s like a moment of mild claustrophobia. This is all the room we’re getting. There are brittle witticisms to be flung and emotional permutations to be worked through, and until that has all happened no-one is going anywhere. Even in a good production, it can feel faintly daunting. Elegance is a definite virtue, but it’s not the same as being digestible. The Church of All Saints on Turl Street is elegant, but I wouldn’t want to choke that down with a swift half of bitter and a packet of nuts.
So it’s fun to see Christopher Luscombe’s version of Star Quality (adapted from an unproduced Coward play and a short story) and watch authentically Cowardian material handled in a more fluid style. You don’t have to be Bert Brecht these days to leave the back wall blank, whip the furniture on and off a bit lively-like, and a set a couple of scenes running at the same time on one stage. Luscombe is not provoking a critical attitude towards the operations of late stage capitalism in the entertainment industry. He is, however, provoking a few good laughs and a saucy bit of business with a sarong and a breakfast tray.
The show revolves around the production of a play, and the battles between Sincere Young Playwright (Bob Soul), Theatre Diva (Amanda Donohoe) and Smooth Director (Ray Malcolm). It’s about how writers and performers misunderstand each other, about what “theatre” really is, about trying to put the indescribable into words, and about how personal deception makes for artistic truth. Or it’s a great big gossipy bitch-fest about mid-twentieth century show folk. (It may be the former, it’s definitely the latter.) I got just enough of the references to real people at the time (Binkie Beaumont, check; George Rylands, check) to give me a sense that this all could have happened, more or less like this, in a rehearsal room back then. There’s no plot to speak of, just a lot of thesps doing their various things. It’s not the most shattering achievement in all drama, but if you like Coward it’s great fun to get a glimpse of the milieu in which his other plays were built, to see the “very ageing bodies of the time their bad form and budget pressures”.
Star Quality manages to catch the audience in an intriguing bind. If you poke away at the piece, demanding it have something to say, you come dangerously close to the would-be Angry Young Man playwright who stumbles around inside the theatrical world. If you simply admit to being charmed by its gossipy flair, you’re also him, but in the moments when he’s dazzled rather than disgruntled. A lot of people won’t go with it – I can’t blame them, but I did.