‘The scene is the blue and white room in the house of the Misses Susan and Phoebe Throssel in Quality Street; and in this little country town there is a satisfaction about living in Quality Street which even religion cannot give.’
J.M.Barrie, he of Peter Pan and What Every Woman Knows, was famous for his stage directions. That’s the first line of the first stage direction in Quality Street, and it tells you everything you need to know about what comes next. Pomposity punctured, manners outmanoeuvred, gentility appalled.
And before you ask, the comestibles were named after the play. In perhaps the first example of branding by association, the play was so popular that, in 1936, Mackintosh’s of Halifax (where the play is set) named their new assortment after it. There are similarities. Like the chocolates the play has some very sweet parts – Reader, I cried – and some chewy bits to get your teeth into.
And like J.M.Barrie, director Laurie Sansom has created a preface in the form of a prologue. In preparation for the play he interviewed some workers from the Mackintosh factory about Quality Street and what they might think about the play. The results have been crafted on to the opening and at strategic points, with the cast playing the workers. I’m not sure they shed much light, but they are very funny.
As for the play itself, it’s a fine Regency romantic comedy written in 1901, 80 years after the Napoleonic era in which it is set. Susan and Phoebe Throssel live in their late father’s house. At 30, Susan is resigned to spinsterhood, but she has high hopes for her younger sister Phoebe. The play opens with Susan, a fabulously spinstery Louisa-May Parker, expecting an imminent proposal for Phoebe from one V.B. Meanwhile, she sits with the other ladies of Quality Street, in the blue and white room, ‘making garments for our brave soldiers now far away fighting the Corsican Ogre’.
Phoebe bursts in from the street, so excited she almost forgets to remove her overshoes. We are agog. Has he offered? Apparently not. Like Susan, we are astonished that anyone could resist Phoebe of the Ringlets, as she is known, played pitch-perfect by Paula Lane. One of the ladies, Miss Willoughby, an umbrageous Alicia McKenzie, announces she believes there is a man in the house. It can only be a follower for Patty, the cook, who is summoned from the kitchen. If I run off with anyone in this play it will be the gorgeous Patty, played buxomly by Gilly Tompkins.
The man in question is the Recruiting Sergeant, a portly and slightly menacing Jamie Smelt, whose tales of the horrors of war fascinate Phoebe but lead us to doubt he ever went there. He is good at his job, however, as the plot reveals (no spoilers here). We do meet V.B., Valentine Brown, a charming if slightly distracted Aron Julius, and there is clearly chemistry.
Nevertheless, act two opens ten years later with the ladies in the same house, and running a school to make ends meet. There is some terrific work with puppets by Jamie Smelt, Alex Moran and Jelani D’Aguilar as the schoolchildren. Moran also plays the eager-to-court but far too young Ensign Blades, and D’Aguilar plays Fanny, sister to Miss Willoughby. The core of act two is a very funny conceit in which, in order to get to the ball, Phoebe is obliged to pretend to be her geographically distant cousin Livvy visiting the town. The ball is a hoot, but the following scene, in which V.B. reveals his feelings for Phoebe to Livvy, is a joy.
Like all romantic comedies, it ends well. The chewy bits I referred to are contained in some of the dialogue which is very feminist in tone. The Throssel sisters’ plight is an example of the problems women without men had in those days. And did until quite recently. It’s good stuff. If I have a quibble, it’s that the final entrance of the Mackintosh workers got in the way of me having a proper weep at the happy ending. Sniff, sniff.
Stylishly acted and extremely funny, this is another Northern Broadsides‘ gem, and it’s coming to a theatre near you.
Quality Street is at Bolton Octagon until May 6, 2023. For more information, click here.
For details of the tour, click here.
Main image: Quality Street. Photo by Andrew Billington