Review by Rosie Holmes
Quality Street now means one thing to most of us - a big box of chocolates eaten at Christmas, normally with all the toffee pennies left at the bottom. However, the popularity of J.M Barrie’s play in the early 20th Century inspired the name of the classic sweets. Having seldom been seen in recent times, Northern Broadsides have now revived the piece for modern audiences - so would the show be a sweet treat or a little hard to swallow?
Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Quality Street is a Regency Era comedic farce that follows the plight of the Throssel sisters, Phoebe and Susan. Phoebe, or “Phoebe of the ringlets” begins as an attractive young girl who is certain she is to be proposed to by Valentine Brown. After he fails to propose and heads off to war, we see Phoebe transform into an ‘old maid’ hiding her beauty and becoming tired as she sets up a school for genteel children along with her sister Susan to keep them financially afloat. Upon his return from war ten years later, we see a comedic state of affairs as Phoebe takes on the persona of the younger Miss Livvy who beguiles all the men at the ball and tricks Captain Brown.
Within the piece the theme of age and beauty are prevalent. Not really surprising from the writer whose best-known work is Peter Pan, about a boy who wishes to never grow up. In this piece we see Phoebe lamenting the loss of her youth and constant talk about the attractiveness of youth. As well as these themes, we also see the often-discussed notion that a woman's success and financial security are based upon her ability to secure a husband.
Directed by Laurie Sansom, there are some interesting directorial choices. The play opens with several factory workers on the stage, discussing their time working in the chocolate factory in Halifax. When the show was first produced in 2020, workers were invited to rehearsals to get their take on the new interpretation of the play that inspired the name of the chocolates they had all spent years making. The workers made many observations and shared anecdotes about their time in the factory, many so witty that their words were used verbatim in the final production itself. It’s a nice way to tie up the locality of the piece but didn’t seem to really work as well as hoped.
Whilst the play gave the chocolates their name, the story itself has nothing to do with chocolates nor factories and therefore the modern-day interludes became a little jarring. Similarly, the opening scene of dialogue from the factory workers was an extremely slow-paced way to start the show, one which did continue for almost the entirety of the first half. It almost felt that the commentary from the ladies of the chocolate factory was one of the only ways in which they could make this show relevant to a modern-day audience.
Another odd choice was the inclusion of some scary-looking puppets that were used to create a classroom scene. I can’t help but wonder if they were included simply for laughs, although they were maybe more nightmare-inducing. I am still wondering why the decision was made to include them, and if maybe I missed something.
That being said, whilst the plot did suffer from some pacing issues, it certainly picked up in the funnier second half, allowing the wonderful cast to showcase their excellent comedic timing. Louisa-May Parker brilliantly portrays self-declared old maid Susan Throssel. Her facial expressions gave great comedy to the otherwise often dreary character and her part in the removal of Miss Livvy scene was surely one of the highlights of the night. Alongside her Paula Lane, as lead role Phoebe Throssel was again extremely funny and expertly flitted between her two personas; downtrodden Miss Phoebe the school teacher, and flirty Miss Livvy.
Aaron Julius takes on the role of Phoebe’s love interest, the ‘dashing’ Captain Valentine Brown, equally oblivious as he is cutting. His part in the removal of Miss Livvy scene is also the highlight of the night and showcases his excellent use of physical comedy. Other cast members such as Gilly Tompkins as servant Patty and Alice Imelda as young Charlotte Parratt all make the most of their time on stage, providing perfect caricatures of their characters which suit the farcical play perfectly.
Direction by Laurie Sansom is largely successful though occasionally suffers from some pacing issues. The first half moves slowly with some scenes feeling slightly too long. However, there are some effective choices including a dance scene that opens the second half as the characters convene at the Quality Street ball which was a joy to watch. Part modern in its style, part harking back to the quadrille style of the time, it is remarkably creative when you think this show was first produced in 2020 before Bridgerton was seen on screens which have now become popular for its modern take on regency era dancing and music.
Set design comes from Jessica Worrall, made mostly from a large metal frame that evokes the industrial nature of the Quality Street Factory. For me, I would have preferred for the set to transport us more to the regency era, as the play is set in this time rather than the factory itself. Costumes again from Worrall are a joy though. The ball scene gives way to what I will refer to as sweet-wrapper chic, in which we see a large array of brightly coloured and shiny dresses which are clearly inspired by a tin of Quality Street.
There is much to enjoy in Quality Street with some truly funny scenes and others that were visually pleasing, as well as some interesting takes on beauty and youth. However, the pacing was often slow leaving me feeling like the show needed a bit more depth to it. The success of this play in its heyday left me wondering if the quality issue was something to do with this specific production or merely a case of a show not being able to withstand the test of time.
Quality Street plays at Richmond Theatre until Saturday 15th Apri before embarking on the rest of its UK tour. Full dates and tickets at J.M. BARRIE'S QUALITY STREET - Northern Broadsides (northern-broadsides.co.uk)
Photos by Andrew Billington