Unlocking a Forgotten Chamber of Noël Coward

In 1935-36, British playwright (and aristocratic Jack-of-all-artistic-talents with wit and flamboyance to spare) Noël Coward wrote ten short new plays as part of a one act series called Tonight at 8:30. These plays were shuffled around to present an entirely unique three show playbill each night. Yet one of these plays, Star Chamber, was only performed once, a matinee performance on March 21st, 1936 at the Phoenix and it was never again produced or published until the production currently playing at the Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 11th, 2009.
Star Chamber is a curious, peculiar little play that gives its audience a glimpse into a board meeting conducted primarily by actors in attempt to raise money for a retirement home for elderly actresses that seems to have fallen into stark disrepair. Indeed, Coward was not only President of the Actors’ Orphanage charity from 1934 until 1956, but he was also quoted as describing himself as, “temperamentally allergic to conferences or committee meetings of any kind.” In this way, Star Chamber was not written with a political agenda, or indeed as the premise for a plot, (witty, romantic, frothy, comedic or otherwise), but simply as a silly, fun little satire of the theatrical customs of the day and the absurdly ineffectual attempts to corral a bunch of theatrical types in hopes that they would stick to anything even remotely resembling an agenda.
As a star vehicle for Coward, as Johnny Bolton the bumbling Vaudevillian, and Gertrude Lawrence, as the ultimate diva Xenia James, it seems as though Star Chamber was written to capitalize on the well-known and beloved personas of these two performers, which would have added a hilarious depth to this play which cannot be recreated. In general, I was left with the feeling that this play might have been exceptionally hysterical in 1936 for an audience who would have been informed to its every tongue-in-cheek reference and caricatured performance. As audience members in 2009, we are able to appreciate the stereotypes of the Vaudevillian, the 1930s film star, the leading actor and leading actress, but I bet that Coward filled these characters with juicy details and personal trademarks that thrust this play into the realm of personal experience and a familiar consciousness shared by everyone in the audience. In this way, I think time has left us out of the joke.
This is not to say that the production at the Shaw Festival isn’t funny, or isn’t a worthwhile fifty minutes to spend at the theatre, just that the play presented in Niagara-on-the-Lake is likely extremely different from the one that Coward wrote for his contemporary audience. It is actors’ performances that bring vibrancy to this Star Chamber, as broad and farcical as their characters may be. Neil Barclay is incessant and loquacious as Johnny Bolton, yet evokes a certain sense of melancholy as a clown who clings desperately to stories from the past and a rapidly crumbling lifestyle, terrified of becoming obsolete. Evan Buliung is deliciously smug and disingenuous as Julian Breed, the handsome actor obviously accustomed to being the toast of the West End. Fiona Byrne equals Buliung in her exorbitant, dramatic portrait of Xenia James. Guy Bannerman is fantastically overwhelmed, as the bewildered J.M. Farmer, the only man at the meeting who is not a member of the theatre community, and who tries continually, in vain, to cut through the theatrics and bring about some business and productivity. Marla McLean is perfectly hysterical as Hester More, an eccentric Shakespearean actor with a penchant for outbursts, and oddities. With her huge afro wig and dark rimmed glasses, she is hard to miss onstage, but I found that her reactions to the other characters were so fraught continually with comic gems that she kept me entirely captivated throughout the show. The direction by Kate Lynch welcomes chaos as the meeting is fraught with overlapped dialogue which at times is entirely indiscernible, an impromptu sing-along for no reason beyond its being fun, and a scene stealing Great Dane named Bismarck.
I can understand why Star Chamber hasn’t had the long-lasting success of Noël Coward’s other work, yet as a piece of theatre history, this play is quite a fascinating one. Also, despite its lack of plot and its characters too preoccupied to listen to one another, it still has Coward’s signature ambiance of amusement and fun and a chamber full of giggles.
Star Chamber plays at the Royal George Theatre at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario until October 11th. For the complete schedule and ticket information, please visit http://www.shawfest.com/.

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