Quality Street

J M Barrie
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre
The Crucible

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Aron Julius and Paula Lane Credit: Andrew Billington
Gilly Tompkins and Paula Lane Credit: Andrew Billington
Aron Julius Credit: Andrew Billington
Jamie Smelt Paula Lane and Alex Moran Credit: Andrew Billington
Jelani Alicia and Louisa-May Parker Credit: Andrew Billington
Ensemble Credit: Andrew Billington

J M Barrie was a prolific writer of successful plays and to a long list he added Quality Street in 1902.

The play is set in 1805, two years after the start of the Napoleonic war which continued until 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo. British society was dominated by the war with many young men taking the King's shilling and setting off for death or glory.

We initially meet two sisters, Susan and Phoebe Throssel. Susan is somewhat past her prime and reconciled to becoming an old maid, but the much younger Phoebe is full of hope and vitality and imminently expecting an offer of marriage from the handsome Valentine Brown. She is mistaken in the purpose of his visit and is devastated when he announces that he has joined the army.

10 years pass and Valentine returns to renew his acquaintance with the sisters but is shocked to find that ‘Phoebe of the ringlets’ is now a dowdy schoolteacher, not the sparkling ballroom partner he remembers.

But Phoebe does not give up and reinvents herself as the audacious, flirty Miss Livvy, her supposed niece, Valentine is attracted again and we have all the ingredients of a romantic comedy in a tradition which includes The Taming of the Shrew, The Country Wife, The Importance of Being Earnest and notably Pride and Prejudice.

In preparation for the revival of the play after the COVID lockdown, the company called in retired workers of the Halifax factory which has been making Quality Street chocolates since 1936. The workers' comments and anecdotes are incorporated into the production, providing an extended structure which fleshes out the thin text and offers a contemporary perspective on events.

The play is most successful in scenes which replicate the Regency period and is helped by convincingly authentic performances from Louisa-May Parker (Susan) and Paula Lane (Phoebe) as the sisters and Aron Julius as a handsome and sympathetic Valentine.

At times, the production strays into areas where the modern overwhelms the historic as in the ballroom scene when a formal dance degenerates into a romp and occasionally when comic business jars because it belongs in a much more permissive century.

The set sits well on the Crucible stage and easily transforms from the domestic setting to schoolroom and ballroom. The brightly coloured, shiny, light-catching material for the ballgowns is a nod to the sweet wrappers and visually effective. The badly behaved pupils who attend the sisters’ Dame School are skilfully represented by puppets, notably the girl whose parents insist that she should be taught algebra.

What makes the play particularly interesting, as with the comedies cited above, is the relationship between the individual and the social expectations of Quality Street. Phoebe is horrified when she suspects that her closely watching neighbours have seen through her subterfuge, and Valentine, after a flirtatious encounter with the extravert Miss Livvy, is happy to accept the calm composure of the ageing Phoebe. In fact, women are generally much better once they have accommodated themselves to what high society and their husbands find acceptable.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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