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David Benedict: Downton Abbey effect shows the highs and lows of star casting

Lily James and Gillian Anderson in All About Eve at the Noel Coward Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Theatre, in days gone by, made its own stars. Neon lights shone with the names of actors whose careers had been made on stage. Not any more. These days, stars come ready-made from somewhere else: Downton Abbey.

Okay, Maggie Smith didn’t exactly need Downton to become what used to be called “a marquee name” – big enough to be emblazoned on front-of-house displays to entice paying customers. For her, it was the other way around: her decades-long status and talent helped win popularity for what was, at first, an unknown family saga that wasn’t based on a novel and was, then unfashionably, a costume drama that, to make matters worse, was being made for the then struggling ITV.

Heretical though it may be to say so, I found Downton near unwatchable after the gloriously merciless Red Nose Day spoof Uptown Downstairs Abbey. But six seasons and the promise of the film opening in September has undeniably made the show a passport to theatre power and not just for the magisterial Smith, who recently completed a triumphant run, alone on stage for one-and-three-quarter hours, in Christopher Hampton’s quiet gripper A German Life at London’s Bridge Theatre.

A German Life review at Bridge Theatre, London – ‘Maggie Smith is spellbinding’

She was preceded at that address by Downton’s Joanne Froggatt (Anna) headlining Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation of Harriet Lane’s novel Alys, Always. And although Michelle Dockery had pre-Downton theatre form having caused a stir in 2008 as Eliza in Peter Hall’s Pygmalion, her Lady Mary helped cast her in the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (a role she sadly had to forgo due to the terminal illness of her fiancé). However, her return to the stage in the Faye Dunaway role in the National’s Network certainly helped boost that show’s publicity.

Before then, off the back of playing Lady Edith, Laura Carmichael made her West End debut in 2012 as Sonia in an uneven Uncle Vanya and followed that with appearances in Jamie Lloyd’s productions of The Maids and Apologia. Similarly, playing Lady Rose definitely boosted the theatre casting clout of Lily James, who has taken title roles in both Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet and the recent All About Eve.

The Maids review at Trafalgar Studios, London – ‘more flash than substance’

It’s not just London producers who have taken advantage of the Downton effect. Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) headlined Taken at Midnight at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2014 before its transfer to the West End – for which Wilton finally won her first, ridiculously overdue, Olivier award. And Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley) has just completed a run there playing CS Lewis in Shadowlands.

That brings us to his onscreen wife, Elizabeth McGovern, who has just opened at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End opposite Matthew Broderick. With their names in big, bold lettering and their faces adorning the publicity, the image of the two of them is being used to sell the overdue London debut of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2009 play The Starry Messenger.

The Starry Messenger review at Wyndham’s Theatre, London – ‘Matthew Broderick gives a great, understated performance’

But is this a star too far? As far as maximising ticket sales goes, the best move a playwright can make is to be very famous and dead – Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde, for example – so publicity-shy, living Lonergan needs all the help he can get. He certainly writes roles strong enough to attract serious talent. As in his magnificent films You Can Count on Me, the Chekhovian and too-little-seen Margaret and the recent Manchester by the Sea, his plays including This Is Our Youth and the puzzlingly neglected Lobby Hero – revival, anyone? – glow with vividly detailed characterisation and a rare depth of compassion.

But, although there may be an audience for Lady Cora, sorry, Elizabeth McGovern, her presence unbalances everything. The title refers to Broderick’s character and it is absolutely his play. The seven other roles (all so exquisitely played in Sam Yates’ production as to be in the running for Equity’s Clarence Derwent Award for supporting actor) are of near-equal size and consciously subsidiary. Star casting singles out McGovern’s role as his wife and sets up expectations the play was never designed to meet. Wrongly, it makes her role seem underwritten.

That, however, pales beside shenanigans down the road at the Adelphi and the musical Waitress, where star casting has hit its nadir. Without proof of sales figures, one cannot definitely say the show is not doing ideal business, but how else to explain the shoe-horning into the production of ex-Pussycat Doll Ashley Roberts at the expense of existing cast member Laura Baldwin? The latter, the producers have tersely announced, will return to the production “at the end of the summer”. She will remain on full pay being offstage during Roberts’ stint, but it’s hard to see this temporary removal as anything but the equivalent of being slapped in the face for not being famous enough.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

Lucie Jones and Ashley Roberts join West End Waitress cast

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