It’s a welcome return to the Royal and Derngate to director Laurie Sansom, who provided us with some memorable productions when he was Artistic Director a few years back. His innovative Private Fears in Public Places as part of the Ayckbourn at 70 season, with the audience seated on the stage; his exciting Young America season with rarely performed plays by the young Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill; his breathtaking Duchess of Malfi, his beautifully understated Eden End, his intense Blood Wedding, the gripping Bacchae his superbly lucid Hedda Gabler, and his Royal and Derngate swansong, One for the Road. He returned with the triumphant James Plays in 2016, and I was also lucky enough to see his Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier in 2018. I am, unashamedly, a fan.
We also saw his lighter side in the hilarious Alice in Wonderland, and it’s that ability to create a light-hearted ensemble that once again comes to the fore in this current touring production of Northern Broadsides’ (of whom he is the Artistic Director) Quality Street, yet another of these shows that was suspended a few years back because of the dreaded Covid. Co-produced by the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme, and written by J M Barrie in 1901, it’s set roughly a hundred years earlier at the start of the Napoleonic era. In what you could describe as an early rom-com, a young woman, Phoebe, believes she may have won the heart of a dashing soldier, Valentine Brown. But when she realises she is mistaken – and out of money – she sets up a school with her older sister Susan, that drags both of them down with tiredness and the resulting lack of gaiety – no balls to attend. Ten years later Brown returns from the wars, and in attempt to show him that she still has that certain something, Phoebe pretends to be a fictitious younger niece, Livvy, to win his attention. But it doesn’t go entirely to plan…
As a Laurie Sansom show, though, it has to have something of a twist. It was the original success of the play that provided the name for the famous brand of chocolates that we still all love to gorge on today. Quality Streets are manufactured in Halifax, which also happens to be the home base of Northern Broadsides. So they invited five workers from the factory to attend rehearsals, get their feedback on the play and the production, and also to get their recollections of decades of faithful service to Mackintosh’s Chocolates. So insightful and entertaining were their comments that they decided to incorporate them into the production itself. Thus, not only does this production of Quality Street feature Phoebe, Susan, Brown and the rest of Barrie’s characters, but also Mac’s Lasses Jo, Sandra, Brenda, Barbara and Lotte from Halifax! Of course, they’re not the real people, but played by doubling up members of the cast.
The jury’s out as to the extent that this device is successful. On the one hand, their contributions are indeed frequently very funny and revealing, and they’re clearly lovely people. They serve the production as part Greek Chorus part Gogglebox, also appearing as the stagehands changing the set between the Acts, and they provide the bookends for the show, both as an introduction and a post-play wind down. And they help to juxtapose the three eras – the early 1800s when it was set, 1901 when it was written, and today – and put the content of the play into some form of modern context.
No doubt that they add a je ne sais quoi to what is otherwise a charming but relatively insignificant play. However, on the other hand, it does feel to me rather artificial and contrived. After all, the only association between these people and the play are the two words Quality and Street; it’s not even as though the chocolates were the inspiration for the play. You might just as well ask the staff at Interflora for their opinion of a box of Cadbury’s Roses. The more cynical might say they are used as padding; I couldn’t possibly comment.
Much is made in the piece of the attractiveness of the blue and white room which the Misses Throssel inhabit, but Jessica Worrall’s set keeps this to the minimum, concentrating more on blank space and gates, perhaps suggesting a kind of imprisonment, away from the glamour of the ball or the clamour of a war. However, I delighted in the appreciation that the ball dresses, in all their colourful satin glory, reflected the different colours of the wrappings in a Quality Street box – nice touch. The play itself builds slowly but sensibly, eventually descending (or do I mean ascending?) into farce but of the most genteel kind – nothing Brian Rix-like nor even Feydeau here. Barrie was writing at the end of the Victorian era and it’s curious to see a farce that never remotely touches on the subject of sex. The biggest laugh of the evening comes from the “removal” of Miss Livvy from the stage; a classic piece of comic business superbly delivered in all its – literally – fantastic glory.
The performances are all first-rate. Paula Lane takes the central role of Phoebe/Livvy and throws herself into it wholeheartedly; she has a striking stage presence and uses her strong clear voice to terrific advantage. Louisa-May Parker is excellent as the spinsterish Susan, always putting herself second but also brooking no nonsense. Aron Julius makes a superb Valentine Brown, bestriding the stage heroically, fully wrapped up in himself with an underplayed arrogance that gradually falls away with his own self-understanding.
Gilly Tompkins steals many a scene as the domineering maid Patty, and also the endearingly gossipy Barbara; and I really enjoyed the performance of Alicia McKenzie as nosy neighbour Mary Willoughby, with her upright puritanical behaviour. Alice Imelda is amusingly bossy as Charlotte, and there’s excellent support from Jelani D’Aguilar as the equally nosy Fanny, Alex Moran as the feeble Ensign Blades and Jamie Smelt as the ghastly wannabe suitor to Miss Livvy.
It’s gently entertaining and wry rather than slap-your-thighs hilarious, but it’s a rare opportunity to see an out of fashion play that was once the talk of the town. Bringing in the Mac’s Lasses is a fascinating experiment, and there’s plenty to enjoy, especially after the interval. After it leaves Northampton the tour continues to Richmond, Bolton, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Hull, Scarborough, Guildford, Keswick, Blackpool and Halifax.
Production photos by Andrew Billington