Review – Quality Street, Northern Broadsides, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th April 2023

Quality StreetIt’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.

Brown and PhoebeWe 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…

FeedbackAs 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.

Patty and PhoebeThe 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.

SusanNo 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.

Ensemble DanceMuch 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.

Brown and PattyThe 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.

Fanny, Mary and SusanGilly 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.

PattyIt’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

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Kinky Boots, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th September 2018

Kinky Boots the TourCyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s musical has been around for a few years now – we saw it at the Adelphi back in December 2015 – and it’s simply poetic justice that its first UK tour should start at its spiritual home here in Northampton. A massive pair of kinky boots hang suspended over the stalls bar at the Royal and Derngate, as if to prove the point! If you want to know what I think about the show itself, the set, the songs, the characters and the story, I can do no better than to refer you to my original review here.

Charlie and NicolaMrs Chrisparkle and I saw the first preview of the UK tour last Wednesday. So how is it looking, three years on, with a new cast, in a new theatre? Is this going to be a successful tour? You bet your kinky boots it will! It’s looking like a million dollars, I reckon $900,000 of which have been spent on the encrusted diamonds on the heel of a boot fit for a Milan catwalk. It’s still a great show, with its warm and life-enhancing message of acceptance and kindness. You still wonder (well I do) how a mild-mannered guy like Charlie Price ended up with such a ruthless girlfriend as Nicola; anyone who wants to tear down a shoe factory and put dozens of people out of work simply to make money by converting them into flats has got to have a streak of cruelty in there somewhere. I still despair (slightly) that it makes Northampton out to be a much worse place than it is; somewhere you escape from rather than somewhere you turn to. I still try to work out how many of the Angels are played by women… it’s still zero.

Real bootsPerhaps this time around, I realised quite how thin the plot is. Ailing shoe factory changes tack and manufactures kinky boots – in other words, fabulous, glamorous 2 feet 6 items of tubular sex that are sturdy enough to take a man’s weight. They take their product to Milan. Err… that’s it. Of course, it’s the character development that is the most interesting; and that’s the character of Lola, because Charlie is a remarkably bland character for a hero. Lola is a fabulous drag queen by night (and by day if she can wangle it) and she’s learned how to handle the tough times when she’s abused on the street (or, indeed, in the workplace). When she’s not Lola, she’s Simon from Clacton, a subdued, underwhelming husk of a man. She’s only comfortable when she kicks reality into touch and takes on her glossy mantle. But then, as we all know, life is always better when you’re in a musical.

Angels and LolaI hadn’t heard the songs again since seeing the show three years ago and I was impressed all over again; and Patrick Hurley’s nine-piece band spreads the joy beautifully with their amazing playing. However, there were times when the music was just a little too loud for the speech – it seems there’s always room to tighten up the balance just a little bit. And without mentioning any names, a couple of the female voices seemed to me way off pitch at times in the first Act; first night nerves no doubt. Anyway, no need to worry, what can seriously go wrong with a performance of Kinky Boots? It’s not as if the conveyor belts on which they dance froze and they had to stop the show!

Big numberNo, wait… that’s exactly what happened. Halfway through the big end of Act 1 number, Everybody Say Yeah, everybody said stop. It felt wrong when the Angels walked in along the conveyor belts looking rather anxious, rather than being propelled in, and, bless them, everyone tried their utmost to make a go of the scene, but pretty quickly the lights went out, the curtain came down and we were all asked to remain in our seats whilst some backstage guys got their spanners out. Unfortunately, Front of House took this as the cue to bring in the interval ice-creams (there was only a minute or so left of the first half to go) so we had the accidentally amusing sight of punters joining massive queues down the aisle only to be told that the show was just about to re-commence, so that they rapidly had to scamper back to their seats, with or without raspberry ripples. Fair play to the cast, who picked it up again halfway through the show, but I had to laugh at a few of their faces revealing a sense of enormous relief when elements of the set finally worked as they were meant to!

Lola and the AngelsAnd what of our new cast? It’s always exciting when you can say that magic phrase a star is born, although I suspect I may be late to that party already. But, in the shape of Callum Francis, this Lola is truly sensational. For sheer stage presence, as well as fantastic singing and being a great little mover, you cannot take your eyes off Mr Francis the entire night. Every time he comes on stage a little voice inside you goes “hurrah, he’s back!” He wins you over in an instant with his brilliant comic timing, engagingly over-the-top expressions, and the kindness and warmth he exudes on stage. Absolutely superb.

Lauren and CharlieIt must be very hard to hold your own against Mr Francis (if you’ll pardon the expression), but Joel Harper-Jackson does a terrific job as Charlie Price, the rather hen-pecked boyfriend who comes into his own as he starts to take responsibility for the factory. Whilst the show is full of brash and snazzy numbers, it was his performance of Soul of a Man that stood out for me as its defining moment.

LaurenThe rest of the ensemble all give great support – Paula Lane’s Lauren is sweetly excitable, Helen Ternent’s Nicola conveys a strong sense of steely determination, Demitri Lampra’s Don is suitably aggressive and there’s a wonderfully funny turn from Adam Price as the senior employee George finally letting his hair down. And of course there’s a brilliant array of Angels – not even Captain Scarlet was that lucky. But everyone gives it their all and turns in a great performance.

On the conveyor beltIt was one of those instant ovation nights – not a slow, semi-unwilling Mexican wave through the audience, but everyone got up like a shot and stayed up. Even more noticeable, after the cast had finally left the stage, no one in the audience showed the slightest interest in leaving the theatre until the band had finished the final note of their outro. That tells its own story as to how much of a good time everyone had.

I think it’s fair to predict that this tour is going to be a massive success!

Photos by Johan Persson – from the West End 2015 production.