REVIEW: Northern Broadsides/New Vic Theatre in Quality Street, York Theatre Royal, plenty in the tin until Saturday ****

Jamie Smelt’s Recruiting Officer, Paula Lane’s Phoebe Throssel, Aron Julius’s Captain Valentine Brown and Alex Moran’s Ensign Blades in Northern Broadsides’ Quality Street

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.

Aron Julius’s Captain Valentine Brown and Paula Lane’s Phoebe Throssel in Quality Street: Picture: Andrew Billington

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

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; Hull, 01482 323638 or; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or; Halifax, 01422 351158 or

J M Barrie’s Regency rom-com Quality Street does exactly what it says on the tin in Northern Broadsides factory story

Gilly Tompkins’ Patty, left, and Paula Lane’s Phoebe in Quality Street, on tour at York Theatre Royal next week

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.

Gilly Tompkins’ Patty in a scene from Northern Broadsides and the New Vic Theatre’s tour of J M Barrie’s Quality Street

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.

Quality Street: Regency rom-com bound for York Theatre Royal

“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

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; Hull, 01482 323638 or; Scarborough, 01723 370541 or