Quality Street

J M Barrie
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre
Octagon Theatre, Bolton

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Quality Street Credit: Andrew Billington
Quality Street Credit: Andrew Billington
Quality Street Credit: Andrew Billington
Quality Street Credit: Andrew Billington
Quality Street Credit: Andrew Billington

Long before Gold Blend coffee turned their TV advertisements into a mini soap opera, Quality Street chocolates used the characters of Major Quality and Miss Sweetly to publicise their confectionary and took the title of the sweets, and the relationship between a soldier and a lady, from the play by J M Barrie.

Phoebe Throssel (Paula Lane) is having a bad day. The family fortune has been lost in a series of bad investments leaving herself and her sister Susan (Louisa-May Parker) in gentile poverty. An announcement by Valentine Brown (Aron Julius) turns out not to be a marriage proposal but a declaration he has enlisted to fight in the Napoleonic wars.

When Captain Brown returns a decade later, he cannot disguise his horror at the impact of austerity upon Phoebe who is reduced to running a school for unruly children on Quality Street. Offended by his reaction, Phoebe adopts a more glamorous identity as the vivacious Miss Livvy, who attracts the attention of pretty much every male in town but also reminds Brown why he found Phoebe so attractive in the first place. However, the course of true love never did run smooth and, as well as juggling dual identities, Phoebe must take care to avoid scandal.

Director Laurie Sansom takes an audacious approach combining a glossy romance with elements of verbatim theatre. The lavish costumes by Jessica Worrall and Lis Evans may not be larger than life but they are certainly brighter—the eye-popping colours match the shades of the sweet wrappers.

However, the play opens with the noise of machinery in operation and former employees of the Quality Street chocolates factory in Halifax wandering onstage to chat about their work and experiences. This verbatim theatre approach shows societal changes since the regency period in which the play is set, as career options have expanded, making marriage or the army no longer the only choices. There is the wistful observation the occasionally saucy behaviour in the play would not be tolerated in today’s more sensitive society. One cannot help but feel, however, given the choice between waltzing on a dance floor in fancy clothes or working in a factory, most people would choose the former.

Director Sansom sets an exaggerated atmosphere for the play. The grisly effect of adult actors playing children is avoided by the use of Beka Haigh’s nicely grotesque puppets. The second act in particular is great fun. Ben Wright’s choreography is a grab-bag of styles from all over the place that gives the impression the dancers have had a bit too much to drink. The characters are allowed little dignity—conflict between the soldiers is treated like squabbling children in a playground, pushing, shoving and giving each other Chinese burns.

Initially, it is hard to see the attraction of Captain Valentine Brown, who presents as an arrogant twit regarding servants as animate pieces of furniture and chucking his hat and coat over the maid. Aron Julius shows the maturing of the character, not only in his willingness to acknowledge his mistakes but also a growing sense of fun.

Paula Lane is a superb comic heroine showing Phoebe’s increasingly desperate antics originate in her outrage at how she is regarded not just by Valentine Brown but other members of her community who treat her with a degree of pity. It is a very physical performance; Phoebe is so eager to get to the dance, she behaves like Bambi on a frozen pond—slipping and sliding around the stage.

The first act builds slowly but the jokes come thick and fast in the second act, making Quality Street well worth a visit. The COVID pandemic interrupted the original tour of Quality Street and it feels particular appropriate it should resume as the UK indulges in nostalgia during the Coronation.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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