9:00am Thursday 8th March 2012
By Nick Utechin
Backstage dramas or comedies seem to have an eternal fascination for audiences, with Michael Frayn’s Noises Off perhaps the pre-eminent example. Noel Coward spotted that fact in 1967, when he adapted a short story he’d written 16 years earlier and turned it into a play, Star Quality. It was the last play he penned and was not staged in his lifetime.
It concerns the sweet and sour impact made on a theatre company as Lorraine Barrie, a temperamental but fading star, joins the production as the lead.
Coward himself summed her up as a “glittering example of a bona fide, rip snorting megalomaniac”. And, indeed, there was a bit of an impact on the real touring company that arrives with Star Quality at the Oxford Playhouse next week: its own leading lady, Amanda Donohoe, departed after the first few weeks.
Director Joe Harmston explained: “It was a decision Amanda came to. She just wasn’t very happy with being on tour. It was nothing to do with the show or the company — just being away from home on tour turned out not to be practical for her.”
Stepping into her shoes is an actress who has become almost a regular on the Playhouse stage.
“Liza Goddard is marvellous casting for Lorraine — in fact in many ways I have to say better casting than Amanda! We’d already worked together three times, so as soon as it became apparent that I would have to re-cast, I immediately rang her.
“It’s a difficult part to play and one needs someone really steeped in the theatre, which of course Liza is.”
There are strong overtones of Gertrude Lawrence in the role of the grande dame Barrie, together with hints in the play of new styles of British stage drama emerging: “What’s fascinating about the play,” Harmston continued, “is that it’s an homage to the monstrosity and marvel of what he felt was at the heart of the theatre: the great actresses. There was a terrific energy in these people which Coward adored.
“Lorraine is somebody whose time was in the past, but who a younger director recognises has a great deal to offer to the play but sees that what’s needed is for her to be wedded to some of the newer ideas. She needs to be challenged in a way that won’t allow her to rest in her old habits.”
When Noel Coward wrote the play, he gave it to his agent, who effectively told him not to proceed with putting it on.
In 1967, says Harmston, the theatre was in a place that a play about putting on a play in the 1950s — and about that style of actress — simply would not have chimed with audiences. If it were staged, it might have made audiences focus on Coward himself as perhaps being of a time which had passed. Star Quality was eventually adapted by the actor, writer and director Christopher Luscombe and staged in the West End in 2001.
An unusual piece, then, and Joe Harmston has the pedigree to direct this revival, having established professional relationships over the years with such writers as Harwood, Ayckbourn, Hare and Pinter in developing new productions of their work.
Keeping all options open, he is also artistic director of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company — a concept that, I suggested, can go on forever in this country.
“Let’s hope so, I have mortgages to pay! Our arrangement with Agatha Christie Limited is that we have an exclusive UK deal to direct all her plays — apart from The Mousetrap, which is outside our remit — for, I think, the next 15 years; so we hope to work our way slowly through the canon. This year, we’re doing Murder on the Nile!”
One must, therefore, hope that the Playhouse will play host to the great meandering river at some point in the future — just as intriguing a prospect as Coward’s last dramatic bow should be next week.
l Star Quality with Liza Goddard and Daniel Casey is at the Oxford Playhourse from March 19-24.
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