EVERYONE has a favourite Quality Street – purple, green…orange, not so keen – but there is only one Quality Street play to bite into.
Nevertheless, Northern Broadsides artistic director Laurie Sansom gives it a new wrapper, “stirring in a good helping of Yorkshire wit” from the retired workers of Halifax’s Mackintosh factory, makers of Quality Street.
And so a work from Toffee Town heads to Chocolate City this week, much later than first planned. Sansom’s Broadsides debut had to be put back in the sweetie cupboard after only four weeks when Covid put a red line through theatre shows in March 2020.
This spring he picks up the mantle with plenty of new flavours in the cast, only two of the originals still making the selection for the revived co-production with Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre.
Here is the history bit. Quality Street is a “delicious Regency rom-com” from the 1901 pen of J M Barrie, pre-dating the better known Peter Pan but a huge hit on Broadway in its own right.
Come 1936, Mackintosh’s management hit on the idea of assembling beautifully wrapped toffees, chocolates and sweets in a tin encased in a picture of Quality Street’s principal characters, Phoebe Throssel and Captain Valentine Brown.
Cue Sansom’s idea to weave verbatim recollections from the Quality Street factory floor into Barrie’s play, the red-hatted workers serving as a Greek chorus cum collective narrator, passing comment on the play’s unfolding dramas, recalling their working days and their own romances, and reflecting on how courting has changed.
The to-and-fro format takes a while to settle, not least because the ‘Mack’ workforce open the play with their fourth wall-breaking gossip and nostalgia. They are never more than convivial commentators by comparison with the fateful scene-setting of the Witches in the thunder and lightning prologue to Macbeth and their subsequent encounters with the murderous Macbeth .
Something sweet and nutty this way comes as Barrie introduces his Regency romp with Paula Lane (once Kylie Platt in a different cobbled street, of the Coronation soap variety) in the role of Phoebe Throssel, a woman scandalised by having allowed Captain Valentine Brown (Aron Julius) to kiss her on the cheek. Ten years ago.
Ten years when he has been away fighting Napoleon, while Phoebe and sister Susan (Louisa-May Parker) have had to make a living, running a school for unruly children. They look exhausted, enervated, contemplating the prospect of having to add algebra to the curriculum without any enthusiasm. Understandable caution, you might say, in spite of PM Rishi Sunak’s enthusiasm for adding more Maths to the curriculum.
At this juncture, aside from Gilly Tompkins’ blunt-speaking maid Patty, more humour has been mined from the factory workers’ chatter than Barrie’s story, as supporting cast members switch between tea-break comment and rom-com roles. But once Julius’s Captain reacts so negatively to the older-looking Phoebe, still only 30, the play finds its sweet spot.
For a lavish ball, Phoebe transforms herself into lively, vivacious, flirty, flighty Miss Livvy, her “niece”, an alter-ego that will soon require her to be in two places at once in one of comedy’s favourite devices, from Shakespeare comedies of mistaken identity to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, chaotic Mischief capers to myriad pantomimes.
Not before Jessica Worrall’s witty design has served up the gorgeous spectacle of all the ladies in Quality Street wrapper dresses, Miss Livvy in the most popular purple, of course.
Not only Captain Brown is smitten, so too are Jamie Smelt’s Recruiting Sergeant and Alex Moran’s Ensign Blades as the comedy picks up pace and impact. Cross-dressing Jelani D’Aguilar’s Fanny Willoughby adds to the fun, and Parker’s Susan, forced to play a straight bat to keep Phoebe/Livvy one step ahead, personifies resourceful understatement.
At first you may wonder – as your reviewer did when watching a performance at Leeds Playhouse – why Quality Street made Barrie a fortune, but as should always be the case, the second half is better than the first, In particular in the all-important frank discussions between Phoebe and Captain Brown, where Barrie’s writing, suddenly more serious, goes to the heart of a woman’s woes, mistreatment and frustrations.
From the brief appearances of puppets to Ben Wright’s choreography for the ball, the design’s colour palette and the cast’s colourful northern vowels to Sansom’s beautifully judged direction, Quality Street ends up being a tin of purple and green ones.
Lane’s performance, especially when she has to have a filling of Phoebe within a chocolate coating of Miss Livvy, is top Quality too.
Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre present Quality Street at York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Also: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, May 25 to 27; Hull Truck Theatre, May 31 to June 3; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 6 to 10; Victoria Theatre, Halifax, July 4 to 7. Box office: Sheffield, 0114 249 6000 or sheffieldtheatres.co.uk; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com; Halifax, 01422 351158 or victoriatheatre.co.uk.