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Quality Street

by on 13 April 2023

Never Mind The Quality …

Quality Street

by J.M.  Barrie

Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 15th April then on tour until 7th July

Review by Patrick Shorrock

Old-fashioned, cheaply packaged, gaudily wrapped, and entirely lacking in nutritional value, Quality Street toffees were named after a well and truly forgotten play of J.M. Barrie, which Northern Broadsides have imaginatively disinterred and taken on tour. 

Barrie’s play was hugely popular in its day and used by a Halifax toffee manufacturer as a marketing ploy.  Now the well-known toffees – which retain a place in the nation’s affections, and, for reasons not entirely clear to me, are seen as a great treat at Christmas – are used to sell a play that nobody has heard of. 

Quality Street gives a Victorian view on the Napoleonic Wars.  Valentine Brown (dashingly played by Aron Julius) is expected to propose marriage to Phoebe Throssel (Paula Lane, who has a tendency to overact and go shrill).  Instead, he breaks the news to her that he has enlisted and will be fighting in the Napoleonic wars.  When he returns ten years later, economic pressures have forced her into teaching and she has retreated, like her older sister Susan (a more restrained Louisa-May Parker) into ‘old maid’ mode.  She reacts to what she thinks is his disappointment by recreating herself as Miss Livvy – a younger more flirtatious cousin – and is inwardly furious when he seems to respond. 

In one sense, the plot is neither here nor there.  Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer would be perfectly capable of turning this scenario – even if sounds worthy of Barbara Cartland – into romantic gold.  However, it far from evident that Barrie has the dramatic skills, even to apply some silver gilt, and I was puzzled just why audiences at the time liked the play so much.

Northern Broadsides were evidently not quite sure about the play either, as they invited some of the workers from the Halifax factory to join rehearsals and give their take on the play and the characters’ behaviour.  We are presented with their reminiscences of life on the factory floor.   They also comment on the action in a way that generates some interest and is moderately entertaining, but it does encourage speculation about the quality of the original dialogue that had to be cut to make room for this.  My suspicion, based on what was left, is that this surgery was necessary to make the play viable. 

Laurie Sansom’s direction does quite a lot of work to keep things lively and not utterly predictable.  He gives it a very Bridgerton vibe, with casting that is not only ethnically diverse, but gender blind too, with men playing some of the factory workers and other female roles. 

The climax is the ball where the women’s dresses are designed to look like the quality street wrappers (designs by Jessica Worrall and Lis Evans)  with dancing that is half Jane Austen and half disco (Ben Wright choreographer).  This approach is even more impressively original when you realise that this show started in 2020 before being halted by Covid and thus predates Bridgerton.  

But all this post-modern ingenuity, dolloped on top of Barrie’s play, does end up feeling a bit disproportionate, rather like one of those gigantic American cupcakes where the dayglo icing dwarfs the mass produced cake. 

Patrick Shorrock, April 2023

Photography by Andrew Billington

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