J M Barrie
Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford
25-29 February 2020; 2hr 30min
James Matthew Barrie wrote a lot more than Peter Pan, but his other successes have left their mark as everyday phrases more than through regular stagings. None more so than Quality Street: today the brand of chocolates that took its name from this 1901 romcom is all that most of us know of it.
Laurie Sansom, the new artistic director of Northern Broadsides, opens his régime with the happy discovery that their home town, Halifax, is the place where the chocs are made, so what more Halifax-owned play could there be?
He goes further than that. Barrie’s play is introduced, interspersed and concluded by chatty tales and comments from the Quality Street factory staff of today – nicely bridging the gap between the play’s origin, the 80-plus-years earlier world it sought to portray, and our own (there’s no individual credit, as far as I can see, for the extra text, but we’re told that Broadsides is working with a ‘Creation Squad’ of local people for all their shows now – in this case real Quality Street workers).
After a bit of a sticky start, where we aren't 100 per cent sure Just how much gender and colour blindness we are supposed to be bringing to the party, it settles down, seamlessly leading into the Calderdale-ian tones (every long ‘O’ with a German umlaut on it) used throughout, in true Broadsides style.
The heart of the story is Phoebe (Jessica Baglow), a feisty young woman who’s disappointed when her hero, Valentine (Dario Coates), decides to go for a soldier’s life rather than propose to her.
Ten years later, she’s had to open a little school with her sister (Louisa-May Parker, as Susan), just to make ends meet, and when Valentine returns and points out that she’s not only older but staider, too, her first thought is of revenge. She invents a younger ‘niece’ for herself and, with a change of clothes, acts the part of the flirtatious girl she might have been – even (apparently) Valentine is taken in. Of course, we want to know whether truth will out and true love will win in the end, but how could I possibly tell you the outcome?
Sansom and his company have brought it all bravely into today’s world. Phoebe may be dressed in lilac, but she is no wilting violet: she points out clearly that a woman is better off needing nothing but her own self-respect rather than the regard of a man. There’s no pretence that she ‘transforms’ herself to be a flirty young thing – her voice and manner hardly change, so that she retains her integrity and plays merely on male superficiality… or does Valentine (the only one who’s not drunk at the crucial time) really know what she’s up to from start to finish? He’s a pretty smart cookie, too.
The three principal characters are all skilfully portrayed, and everyone in the company works their socks off, whether being today’s factory workers, moving the props around, working puppets as the schoolkids, or taking the many subservient roles in Barrie’s play.
There’s a ball scene with music and dancing definitely closer to today than the 1800s (and everything stylized to represent the shiny wrappers inside a Quality Street choc box, in the clever design of Jessica Worrall). I also liked both the music (Nick Sagar) and the movement (Ben Wright).
Is it a great play? Probably not – it moves slowly after the ball, though eventually morphs into near-farce style, which Is good fun. But it’s a lively revival of what could otherwise have been a very dated relic, and made its Salford audience very happy.
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