We wouldn’t for the world have missed Star Chamber, the one-act Noël Coward play that the Shaw Festival is putting on as its mid-day show this summer. It’s an absolutely hilarious send-up of self-absorbed actors at a committee meeting. This show starts at 11:30 a.m. and runs for about an hour at the Royal George Theater.
Here’s the storyline, such as it is: One by one, nine people arrive for a committee meeting that is to be held on the stage of a theater where one of them is performing. The nine are a board that is responsible for a old folks’ home for actresses. The serious-minded secretary of the board, Mr. Farmer (Guy Bannerman), who is the only non-actor on the board, is also the only the only one with any real interest in the business of the meeting, which is to consider some badly needed renovations to the home.
In fact, Mr. Farmer never can get the undisciplined actors to stop gossiping and pay attention to business. Johnny Bolton (Neil Barclay) constantly interrupts with old show business stories; no one listens to him. Dame Rose Maitland (Gabrielle Jones) cares mainly about taking the chair and bossing people around in the absence of the group’s president, Xenia (Fiona Byrne), who is late.
When the ditsy Xenia does arrive (looking and behaving very much like Barbra Streisand), she brings her Great Dane and gives it most of her attention. Eventually the actors give up any pretense of getting anything done and gather around the piano for a few songs.
The comic moments — sight gags, tart asides, self-important speeches, and actors playing to stereotype — start slowly, then come faster and faster. Our audience was reduced to continuous, helpless giggling about halfway through the show; we didn’t get control of ourselves till the curtain calls.
We marveled at their split-second timing of the ensemble. We certainly didn’t know any of Noël Coward’s show-business friends, on whom the play was presumably based, but how these characters reminded us of people we’ve met in community theater!
We were glad to see Sharry Flett, who is still stunning, as a strong character again, rather than as a foggy old lady (her role this year in Sunday in the Park with George). Neil Barclay, born to play a ham, is precious as a rotund, veteran song-and-dance man.
The highlight of the songfest at the end was Evan Buliung’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” one of Coward’s best-known songs. (Buliung plays a dashing young actor, Julian Breed.) We were delighted to find, just before the show started, that Mr. Buliung’s parents were sitting next to us in the audience. They were very pleasant people who did not seem at all like stage parents and who were clearly very proud of their son (who is also starring in Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival this summer). We are glad that Evan Buliung is back at the Shaw Festival this year after several years in Stratford (though what a fine Mark Antony he might have made in this year’s Julius Caesar).
Emsworth reviews of other 2009 shows at the Shaw Festival :
John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Play, Orchestra, Play (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)