FringeReview UK 2023
Don’t miss this exquisite confection. After this production, there’s possibly no return to the original. It’s a rethinking paying homage to both the sentiment, which it never upstages, and the brand and its factory-workers the comedy gave its name to.
Director Laurie Sansom, Original Designer Jessica Worrall, Additional Design Lis Evans, Lighting Designer Joe Price, Sound Designer/Composer Nick Sagar, Choreographer Ben Wright, Puppet Maker Beka Haigh, Casting Director Sarah Hughes CDG
Till April 15th. See ATG tour dates.
Don’t miss this exquisite confection. J. M. Barrie is so often the dramatist of transformation: characters become through the operation of magic or make-up different, ideal selves. Even Barrie though mightn’t have predicted how Northern Broadsides, with New Vic Theatre transform his early (1901), slightly flimsy Quality Street, now arrived at Richmond Theatre, directed by Laurie Sansom.
The title gives clues. Retro-fitting chocolates and sweet products actually named from the play (with its characters), this production recruits present-day (2020) employees whose verbatim comments are integrated – with their characters – into the action, topping and tailing it: Barrie’s own work is never guyed. We start with them; at the end they mingle with those romantics from Barrie’s Napoleonic Wars.
This lends the Barrie new life. Indeed despite its huge pre-1939 popularity under husband-and-wife comic royals Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss, it’s not a work revived now, save by the mighty little Finborough in 2010. Barrie’s canny sentimentality is just a bit too patent. He hadn’t quite learned to temper it to such masterpieces as The Admirable Crighton the next year, yes Peter Pan (1904) and supremely Dear Brutus in 1917, and Mary Rose (1920) amongst others. In each, characters translate into ideal selves, then back, changed or not.
We’re first treated to those present-day employees – the original 2020 tour was cut short by covid. This new one including original cast-members sports a beautifully-poised verbatim prologue where chocolate-makers cheerfully impart life-lessons amidst banter, in white gowns and red caps. The action’s now firmly set in Halifax, for both periods.
It’s 1805. 20-year-old Phoebe Throssel (Paula Lane, Coronation Street) and her adoring older sister Susan Throssel (Louisa-May Parker) expect dashing Valentine Brown (Aaron Julius) to propose marriage to Phoebe of the curls. He devastates them by declaring he’s off to the wars. Not only that, his investment advice proves fickle. All they can do is abandon hope, knuckle down into opening a school “for genteel children”; grow old fast. But – wait for Beka Haigh’s uproarious puppets.
Fast-forward ten years. With Waterloo over the now Captain Valentine Brown returns to cut a dash with ladies and rival officers; and make a sentimental call on now mob-capped Phoebe. He’s touched by her condition. Determinedly dowdy, Phoebe evokes the scorn of hoity Charlotte Parrat (Alice Imelda, also wry employee Jo), and pity of early pupil, puppyish Ensign Blades (Alex Moran also Arthur and 2020’s downright Brenda).
30-year-old Phoebe, once the darling/envy of the town, is stung into transforming herself into her fantasy niece: the turbo-charged 20-year-old flirt Livvy she wasn’t, even ten years back. Everyone’s taken in. Two men of straw – Blades and Lieutenant Spicer (Jamie Smelt, also a striding Recruiting Sergeant, and truculent employee Georgy) – are both bowled over. Charlotte’s fuming, and beady busy-bodies Fanny Willoughby (Jelani D’Aguilar, also Isabella and Sandra), and sister Mary (Alicia McKenzie, also touching Austrian post-war emigrée Lotte) stake out the Throssels’ home, to spy out Livvy’s comings and goings. They’re suspicious.
Cue the ball, and transformations with delightful choreography – very Northern Broadsides – by Ben Wright, with Nick Sagar’s 2020 music a rhythmic hommage to Wright’s wacky routines. Jessica Worrall’s initial set sets off sheer sumptuousness with striking simplicity. A brass skeleton-frame with blue-green shifting backdrop has been revised by Lis Evans, and wouldn’t you want to unwrap anyone in those costumes? You’ve guessed it – metallic turquoise, ruby-red, blue and Livvy’s amethyst and purple. All with nodding fascinators. Valentine’s fascinated. A bit repelled too. Joe Price’s lighting plays on metallic sheens.
Barrie’s real brilliance hovers around the conceit of someone falling in love with a true not false self, and Valentine himself has to change; indeed unwrap not just the mystery, but how to stop tongues wagging, see off those officers and flirts. There’s some fine lines. Phoebe laments: “I don’t mean the love of a man. A woman can easily live without that. But the loss of what she was.”
Lane is superbly affecting, leading a fine cast in her own winding complexities, a maze of self-discovery and self-loss. Lane’s twisting out of deception hints something like tragedy. There’s hard truth here and Lane hits it. Parker’s supporting role doesn’t allow much growth save her bewildering at both algebra – though older, Susan’s clearly less academic than Phoebe – and her sister’s spirit. Parker throbs loyalty, as does the more cheerful Patty (Gilly Tompkins, also 2020 Barbara, handing out sweets) whose slice through occasionally cloying pathos is welcome.
Julius is all dash and sincerity, glinting humour when he too plots, always engaging, striking a neat poise between puzzlement and dispatch. Moran and Smelt simper horribly before they’re dispatched, with D’Aguilar’s and McKenzie’s double-act a skit on small-town nosiness. Imelda crinkles with sotto voce scorn and envy.
After this production, there’s possibly no return to the original. What once entertained is here restored beyond its original impact, to absolute theatrical joy. It’s a rethinking paying homage to both the sentiment, which it never upstages, and the brand and its factory-workers the comedy gave its name to. At every point there’s fresh detail, tight control echoing Barrie’s sheer craft, and questions over relevance, placed respectfully. There’s surprises. But that’s what you expect in a box of Quality Street.