Review: Quality Street (Touring)

Tuesday, 16th May 2023 at York Theatre Royal


Quality Street: The Regency Comedy is J.M. Barrie’s take on life and love for the women left behind during the Napoleonic Wars; those who involuntarily became old maids when dreams of marriage departed along with the strapping patriotic men.

Quality Street is certainly a farce in the sense that mistaken identity and active trickery are in the mix. But for the most part, in this production from Northern Broadsides, directed by Laurie Sansom, the performances are often acutely sincere enough and the scenes played straight enough to belong more neatly to drama. Instead of being rich with punchlines and glee, we get mostly gentle humour and some good one-liners along the way, meaning the show reserves the thrill and energy we might expect from a farce for well into Act 2. Yet it must be said that while this comedy is played towards drama, the drama of it is well-played. This is after all an engaging story, even if it isn’t laugh-a-minute, and the cast do a lovely job with Barrie’s characters.

Aron Julius is the very honourable, very eligible and often very oblivious Captain Valentine Brown. He snags the key to Phoebe Throssel’s heart and promptly goes off to war. Throssel remains, and waits for better days: along with her sister Susan, she sacrifices youth, joy and beauty by opening a day school for naughty children just to get by. When the war is through and the luckiest men come back, Phoebe finds herself reflecting on a lost youth and defiantly conjures up a new pretty young thing to entice the men who now look past rather than at her.

Paula Lane offers a broad character arc for Phoebe: from smitten young thing to disillusioned old maid; to a woman re-awakened and finally back to the perky self she thought she’d lost. Louisa-May Parker also gives a great performance as Susan. Susan is a woman who runs from any and all signs of confrontation and yet gets caught up, not just with teaching scrappy youngsters, but also her sister’s spontaneous adventures, and this makes for some great comic moments. Parker particularly shines through Susan’s slow uptake and quietly alarmed reactions; she doesn’t need to be speaking lines to be stealing scenes.

I’m not entirely convinced by the framework of factory workers watching the show along with us and jumping in now and then to comment on the performances, but it’s certainly a well-considered means of keeping Barrie’s text relevant. With each of them offering their penny’s worth, we get easy references to the likes of Love Island and how times they are a-changing – it’s a bit forced, but it does the job. And Gilly Tompkins gets the best of both worlds: she’s the “salt o’the earth”, grounded type from the factory workers and she’s also Patty: the formidable maid/housekeeper who gets big laughs from minimal moments and improves any scene in which she appears.

Jessica Worrall and Lis Evans’ designs create easy messaging through costuming (the youthful gown becomes the dowdy teacher’s garb and so on) and provide some nods to the famous Quality Street wrappers with a rainbow of colourful gowns in Act 2. But that sense of colour and variety doesn’t extend much to the set, though there is a certain period charm to the simplicity of it. Beka Haigh’s puppets do bring good fun to the school room though and they deliver some welcome silliness amidst the woes of the Throssel sisters.

So overall this is quite a mixed bag – or a mixed tin. Like the chocolates with this story as namesake, there are elements to thoroughly enjoy, others to appreciate, even if not quite to savour, and others still which don’t quite hit the spot. What’s not in doubt by the end is that this cast can get the big laughs when direction and text meet on the non-negotiables of a good period farce – other than that, this is an entertaining story and works quite nicely as a drama with laughs thrown in.

Northern Broadsides’ Quality Street is at York Theatre Royal until May 20th, 2023 – more information and tickets can be found here.

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