Ian Fricker at the Mercury Theatre Colchester
13.02.2012for The Public Reviews
The playwright present at rehearsal ? Never an easy decision, as Bennett shows us in The Habit of Art.
In this, Coward's farewell to the stage, we have young Bryan Snow [a distant, more commercial cousin of Roland Maule in Present Laughter] constantly involved in casting disputes and endless re-writes. Very nicely done by Bob Saul, who delivered the saccharine closing speech with commendable sincerity.
Star Quality attempts to analyse the state of British theatre; Christopher Luscombe put it together some years ago from Coward's unperformed script and an earlier short story with the same title.
It's set in the 50s, though the feel is more late 60s, when the drawing room was giving way to the kitchen sink, and the glamour of the West End was threatened by Directors' Theatre at the Royal Court and the Old Vic.
Whichever, it might as well be Garrick's Drury Lane, so far is it removed from thespian life today. Almost all the men wear ties to rehearsal, and everyone smokes all the time. Adrian Linford's clever design captures the period well, with an especially awful stage set for the play, Dark Heritage. And one of the strengths of Joe Harmston's direction was the way the rehearsal stage was seamlessly used for all the settings – the cosy trattoria, the flowery bower of the star dressing room, the cottage in Kent. The sound plot was effective too [Matthew Bugg], in the time lapses, for instance, as the read-through and the rewrites are elided. The script is full of names, dropped or flagged up, and in-jokes, and some amusing period pastiche.
Not a particularly original bunch, these characters. The seen-it-all dresser [Gay Soper, underused here], the solid actor with amnesia ["I knew it backwards in the bath this morning..." Keith Myers], the "competent" superannuated soubrette, sacked after Manchester, [Sarah Berger] and the ruthless big-headed director, presumably written with the Master himself in mind [Daniel Casey]. Most interesting, I thought, was his Graeme Payn, the waspish personal assistant played with subtlety and style by Anthony Houghton, his suede shoes a sure sign of deviant decadence.
Not forgetting, of course, the ageing leading lady, flattered into accepting the role, insecure despite the accolades and the applause. Gertie Lawrence, one assumes, so a big ask, and only fitfully embodied [in her "in the dark, alone" big speech, notably] by Liza Goddard, elegant even in her most difficult moments.
The show begins and ends with that most evocative of settings, a dark, empty stage. And after the curtain calls, the reconciliation, the eulogy to star quality itself, Goddard's Miss Barrie is left to switch off the working light.
video with the cast from the start of the tour ...
this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews