Updated: May 18
J M Barrie
Northern Broadsides and The New Vic, Stoke
Bolton Octagon (and touring)
April 25-May 6, 2023: 2 hrs 30 mins
Also Leeds (May 10-13); York (May 16-20); Sheffield (May 25-27); Hull (May 31-June 3); Scarborough (June 6-10); Keswick (June 20-24); Blackpool (June 27-July 1) and Halifax (July 4-7).
How odd that a play by J M Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, should be remembered today mainly because a brand of chocolates was named after it.
Written in 1901, his rom-com set during the Napoleonic wars a century earlier was a West End hit in its day. When Laurie Sansom took over as artistic boss of Halifax based Northern Broadsides, his first big show for them was a revival of Quality Street: just as the chocolates were Halifax’s own (made originally by Mackintosh’s, now part of Nestlé), what better than the play of the same name for the town’s own company?
Quality Street was one of the casualties of the great Covid lockdown of 2020. It got as far on tour as the Lowry, in February that year, and then everything stopped. I saw it then (read the review here), and it’s good that it’s up and running again.
The show has been given a makeover in conjunction with New Vic Theatre, and the current tour opened in Stoke last month.
The best thing about Sansom’s version of Quality Street is the interpolation of verbatim theatre-type scenes, from the mouths of some of today’s chocolate factory workers who were in on rehearsals from the start. Acted out by members of the main story’s cast, they articulate the fact that a stage romance of Barrie’s day, itself looking back to the world of 100 years before, is a long way from how we see love stories now.
You can’t get over that: there are two sisters of genteel origins but now in reduced circumstances, one of whom falls for the charms of a young gentleman who then goes off and joins the army instead of declaring his love for her. Embittered and needing to earn a living, she opens a little private school, and when he returns she is convinced she has been on the shelf too long and he can’t have truly loved her anyway. But something sparks a flame of the old romance, and she poses as her own invented niece, dressing in a smart gown for a ball and flirting as the giddy teenager she once was.
He seems to fall for the deception, but finally declares his heart is really true to its former passion, and… well, you can imagine the rest.
What is never 100 per cent clear is whether both of them know exactly what the other is doing and are playing along for fun and to avoid old embarrassments – or not. It might almost be out of Jane Austen’s world, where things unsaid are more important than outright declarations (which is, after all, its supposed historical setting).
Sansom and his collaborators are determined to bring it into today’s time though, and as well as giving it the Yorkshire voices that are the company's trademark, to some extent they have turned it into a northern soap opera. Everyone seems inclined to call a spade a shovel, and ambiguity is hardly the name of the game.
There are parts of this I really liked – and designer Jessica Worrall’s idea of dressing the girls for the ball in shiny gowns like the chocolate wrappers we all know and love is one of them. The dancing (Ben Wright) is lively with Nick Sagar’s music, and everything moves smartly – so much as to get a bit gabbled and shouty in the second act.
Paula Lane does a sympathetic job of Phoebe, the heroine; Aron Julius is decent enough as Valentine the soldier hero, and Louisa-May Parker reprises her fine character study as Susan.
More info and tickets here