Star Quality, The Arts Theatre, Cambridge <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The first thing to say about this comedy by Noel Coward is that it is not a Noel Coward comedy. The second is that it doesn't matter. Coward would have liked the perversity, and he might have liked this play. In 1951, when his great creative period was over, he wrote a short story about a preoccupation of his, star quality. In the late Sixties he tried to turn it into a script but, other than a few readings, it was never performed.

At the end of the 20th century, Christopher Luscombe adapted it. There's none of the indoor fireworks Coward created in Private Lives, but then there isn't a Gertie or a Noel to toss them around. Yet this is a play with a serious intent, which the director Ian Dickson has taken on: to find out what star quality really is. And who is this particular star: Tallulah, Collette, the divine Gertie? Or Noel himself?

A demobbed young playwright manages to persuade Nichola McAuliffe's ageless Lorraine Barry to take the lead. With weeping gratitude she makes it plain who is in charge, insisting on her giddy satellite, Marion (Judy Buxton), being in the cast. The director, Ray (Richard Pocock), whose gay partnership with his assistant provides some of the funniest lines, takes her on.

In the original production Penelope Keith was the wilful, brilliant prima donna; Dickson has shrewdly cast McAuliffe, a move which lifts the play from a drawing-room comedy to a play with a forensic purpose. She finds the little-girl-on-20-a-day voice of a Joan Greenwood to woo, the hauteur of a Maria Callas to put down, and the gnash of a Joan Crawford to strike.

Finally, we see the true star in the confrontation between her and the director, when she weeps, she shouts, is corruscating and wheedling in the same sentence. The director remains impervious, until she finds an oyster knife to prise open his ego and, through the success of the play they've done together, manoeuvres him into the surrender line : "No-one else could bring to it your peculiar magic."

They both know she has won, but as he leaves she turns with an air punch. She has proved her star quality, but in that gesture she shows there is nothing more to her. She is a dead star.

To 30 September

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