Quality Street review – JM Barrie's bittersweet romcom is a treat

Viaduct theatre, Halifax
Shakespeare meets Richard Curtis in the play that gave its name to the chocolates, carried by boisterous performances and sweet-wrapper chic

As the new artistic director of Northern Broadsides, Laurie Sansom seems determined to make an impression. Not only has he returned JM Barrie’s Quality Street to Halifax, the town that took the name of this romantic comedy for its famous chocolates, but he’s padded out the play with interview material drawn from chocolate-factory workers whose observations on love and sex feed into a chorus. “She’s a very good actress, isn’t she?” says one about Jessica Baglow in the lead role of Phoebe Throssel (they’re right as well – she’s great).

Sansom goes further: the school scene features puppet pupils, while Jessica Worrall’s costumes go from pretty pastels to dowdy checks before erupting into full-on sweet-wrapper chic, all gaudy purples, oranges and yellows. The ballroom dancing is half disco, half ceilidh.

Chocolates, incidentally, have nothing to do with Barrie’s confection, a West End hit in 1902 but little seen in recent years. Rather, it is a bittersweet love story set at the time of the Napoleonic wars, when a nascent romance between Phoebe and Valentine Brown (Dario Coates) is cut short by the latter enlisting in the army. The pain of missed opportunities and wasted time anticipate Barrie’s Peter Pan. The theatrical disguise when Phoebe pretends to be her younger niece is the missing link between Shakespeare’s comedies of errors and the romcoms of Richard Curtis.

Jessica Baglow in Quality Street
Radiant ingenue and world-weary survivor ... Jessica Baglow in Quality Street Photograph: PR

That being the case, it plays well to the audience in a production that refuses to be constrained by the period costumes, favouring quirky cross-casting and boisterous performances (some too boisterous). It soars in the exchanges between Phoebe, Valentine and Phoebe’s sister Susan (Louisa-May Parker), the women endlessly conflicted by what they want and what is expected of them. Baglow, in particular, is bewitching as she switches back and forth between radiant ingenue and world-weary survivor, independently minded even when the odds are against her. This is enough to carry the production, but Barrie’s script can be flabby and the peripheral action, for all its jollity, can seem like a distraction. As with a box of chocolates, you’ll like some scenes more than others.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Quality Street review – JM Barrie romcom that inspired the chocolates
Liz Carruthers directs a sprightly, good-looking revival of Barrie’s romantic 1902 hit

Mark Fisher

19, Jun, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Quality Street – review
A handsome show overcomes the absurdities of JM Barrie's Wilde-influenced 1902 comedy, says Michael Billington

Michael Billington

06, Dec, 2010 @10:15 PM

Article image
The Season review – musical romcom hits a feelgood festive note
Electrifying performances light up a glittering New York Christmas story in this warm-hearted, tuneful two-hander

Mark Lawson

21, Nov, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
Quality Street review – a box of mixed delights
Uneven adaptation of JM Barrie’s 1901 romcom

Clare Brennan

23, Feb, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Peter Pan review – Barrie classic staged with plenty of pixie dust
Making Wendy younger gives a different dynamic to Deborah McAndrew’s engaging adaptation, with Baker Mukasa’s spontaneous Peter

Mark Fisher

05, Dec, 2019 @12:33 PM

Article image
Peter Pan review – dark mischief and a wicked Tinkerbell steal the show
Sally Cookson’s stunning production brims with naughtiness, bloodlust and menace – recalling JM Barrie’s original intentions for the story

Arifa Akbar

28, Jul, 2019 @12:37 PM

J M Barrie's drama of self-revelation

Dear Brutus
Nottingham Playhouse

Michael Billington

05, Oct, 2000 @11:00 PM

Article image
Child review – scary scenes of untethered imagination
The final part of Peeping Tom’s trilogy surreally explores the innocence and danger of childhood – it’s definitely not for kids

Sanjoy Roy

23, Jan, 2020 @10:55 AM

Article image
Pass Over review – fiercely relevant and compelling
Antoinette Nwandu’s powerful absurdist urban tragedy sees two black homeless men – cowed by the ever-present threat of police brutality – pursue their own American dream

Arifa Akbar

20, Feb, 2020 @1:22 PM

Article image
Trainers review – a messy brush with Montaigne
Sylvan Oswald gives a dystopian twist to the French essayist’s ideas on borders to explore modern gender politics

Kate Wyver

04, Mar, 2020 @6:30 PM