QUALITY Street, Laurie Sansom’s “sweet and slightly nutty confection” of a debut production as Northern Broadsides’ artistic director, had to be put back on the shelf after only four weeks in 2020. Covid and all that. “Heartbreaking,” he said.
Definitely not past its sell-by debut, the Halifax company’s co-production with Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre is being revived this spring with only two of the original cast members, playing York Theatre Royal from next Tuesday.
Among the seven newcomers is Gilly Tompkins, a face familiar to Northern Broadsides and Yorkshire audiences at large, who is delighted to renew acquaintances with Sansom after the “very strange experience of ‘audition by Zoom’, not knowing how many people were watching”!
“I was in Ayckbourn’s farce Absurd Person Singular – the one set in three kitchens – in Laurie’s first production at the Watford Palace Theatre: his first job after leaving Cambridge University,” she recalls. “That was in September 1997. He’s 51 now, I’m 59, and he’s always a delight to work with.
“He’s very playful in the rehearsal room, really up for a laugh, like starting a rehearsal with a game. He’s so intelligent, always enthusiastic and loves the job of directing.”
Quality Street is billed as a “delicious Regency rom-com” from the writer of Peter Pan (first staged in 1904 and transformed into the novel Peter And Wendy in 1911).
Premiered at the Knickerbocker Theater on Broadway, New York, on November 11 1901, it made J M Barrie a millionaire, says Gilly. “To think he hadn’t even written Peter Pan at that point, it’s just an amazing success story, and it was so popular that that’s how the Quality Street boxes and tins of chocolates came about in 1936,” she notes.
“Because the play was so successful, the Mackintosh confectioners in Halifax thought, what if we put all the favourite chocolates, toffees and sweets in colourful wrappings in a tin with a scene from the play on the tin?”
That scene featured central characters Phoebe Throssel and Captain Valentine Brown from Barrie’s drama. Phoebe (played by Paula Lane, latterly Kylie Platt in a different street, Coronation Street) and her sisterSarah run a school for unruly children on Quality Street. Ten years after a tearful goodbye, her old flame returns from fighting Napoleon, but the look of disappointment on Captain Brown’s face when he greets an older, less glamorous Phoebe spurs the determined heroine to action.
She duly becomes the wild and sparkling Miss Livvy, a younger alter-ego who soon beguiles the clueless Captain.
Gilly plays Patty, the maid to the Throssel sisters. “She’s so rude, so belligerent, though she loves Phoebe really” she says. “But she’s no respecter of status. She’s even ruder than they are!”
Sansom’s version “stirs in a good helping of Yorkshire wit from the retired workers of Halifax’s Quality Street factory”. Among them is Barbara, Gilly’s second character. “She was one of the women Laurie interviewed about their factory life and their thoughts on love, along with women from the Knit and Natter groups in Calderdale, and I’m going to meet her when we play Halifax,” she says, looking forward to their encounter during the July 4 to 7 run at the Victoria Theatre. “Barbara is such a sweet lady. I can’t wait.
“They’re like Shakespeare’s ‘Rude Mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commenting on what they’re watching and sharing their memories of the factory, which feature as verbatim monologues in the show.
“The second half opens with me as Barbara, giving out sweets and doing her monologue, and I’m allowed to improvise while the actors stay in character around me doing a Regency dance.
“One night in Stoke [Newcastle-under-Lyme, to be precise], the music wouldn’t start, so I kept improvising because, if you give out sweets, people will talk! All the actors left the stage, and I ended up doing ten minutes on my own with people calling out, ‘hey, Barbara, can I have a sweet?’!”
Ironically, Gilly had been “a bit scared in rehearsals about doing a monologue and handing out sweets, but I’ve loved it and so have the audiences,” she says.
“We keep coming on to pass comment and the audience soon gets used to it. At one point, you’ll see two of the former factory workers peel off their factory costumes to become characters in the play.”
Gilly describes her participation in Quality Street” as “blink and you miss it”. “But I took it on because we’ve been in lockdown and I thought, ‘I might never work again, let’s do it’,” she says.
“It’s been my ‘social tour’, a chance to see friends around Yorkshire, and to work with Laurie and Northern Broadsides again. It’s been so brave of Laurie to take up Barrie Rutter’s mantle as artistic director and to completely reinvent Broadsides.”
One final question, Gilly. Which is your favourite Quality Street chocolate? “It’s the one that when I give out sweets, 90 times out of 100, people say they want: the purple one, because you’ve got that beautiful colour for the wrapping, the chocolate, and then that nut in the middle,” she says.
“But it must be the most people I’ve ever worked with that like the orange and strawberry ones. Not for me! Quality Street is like Marmite that way!”
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre present Quality Street at York Theatre Royal, May 16 to 20, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Also: Leeds Playhouse, all this week, until Saturday; Hull Truck Theatre, May 31 to June 3; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 6 to 10. Box office: Leeds, 0113 213 7700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.