Quality Street review – a box of mixed delights

Viaduct theatre, Halifax
This adaptation of JM Barrie’s 1901 romcom doesn’t always hit the mark, but it roars to the sweetest conclusion

To some readers, the name Quality Street may conjure gaudily wrapped chocolates in a tin decorated with pictures of red-jacketed military men romancing young ladies in high-waisted gowns. Perhaps not so many will be aware that these sweets were named after JM Barrie’s once-popular period comedy, produced three years before his now more-famous Peter Pan. (Could the manufacturer have been subliminally inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s comment on Barrie, “He has a keen sense of human qualities and he produces highly popular assortments of them”?)

Now, Laurie Sansom, new artistic director of Northern Broadsides, twists the connections between these two sweet confections even tighter. He not only locates the Napoleonic wars-period action of the play in Halifax, town of the chocolates’ manufacture, but also inserts new scenes where contemporary, now-retired chocolate-factory workers, talk about their lives, comment on the plot and – handily – carry out set changes. These new scenes have been developed from interviews with real people, whose words are delivered verbatim (in edited form) by actors playing them as characters.

This combination of soft-centred, social realism with Barrie’s whimsical story turns out to be hard to swallow. By emphasising the contrast between past and present, the production highlights both the structural sexism of that earlier society (restricted options for middle-class women to earn money, for instance) and also of Barrie’s comedy itself. Barrie presents genteel, impoverished sisters, Susan (Louisa-May Parker) and Phoebe (Jessica Baglow), as sweet but dim, unable to manage even simple sums, and his plot has them getting themselves into a socially awkward scrape from which they are unable to extricate themselves until rescued by the romantic hero, Valentine Brown (Dario Coates), who also teaches Phoebe a lesson in proper grown-up conduct of affairs of the heart.

That said, Barrie’s dialogue has charm, his construction is clever and Sansom’s production roars to a conclusion that should satisfy all who rejoice to see true love triumph.


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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