For most people these days, J.M. Barrie’s name is linked entirely with his brainchild, a figure ambiguous enough to change with the shifting emphases of popular culture – Peter Pan, the child who never grew up. In his own time, however, the Scottish writer was almost as well known for two earlier plays, The Admirable Crichton, and its predecessor, Quality Street. Indeed, the latter was so celebrated that it inspired a chocolate assortment arguably as enduring in its appeal as Barrie’s ageless boy.
Whereas the mention of Pan evokes London at the height of Empire and the preparatory school pronunciations of the Darlings, Northern Broadsides are cut from a very different cloth. Founded in 1992, and grounded in Yorkshire, the theatre company has prided itself on the art and craft of flattened vowels, foregrounding the depth and breadth of Northern accents, reclaiming them from the cul de sac of regional revivals and comic bit parts.
Their Quality Street, unsurprisingly, is firmly set in a Northern town, ostensibly its native Halifax, but every whit as recognisable as Weatherfield.
The coincidence that the town is the place where the chocolates that bear the play’s name are manufactured is toyed with by enlisting a group of present day factory workers to put in a shift as a kind of Greek chorus, first introducing, and then having their say, on proceedings. Their effect is akin to that of a theatrical Gogglebox, its cameras placed on the Rowntree Mackintosh production line. It’s a device that enjoys somewhat mixed success; bringing a lively sense of music hall to the post-interval acts as the play capers towards its climax, but also muzzling the dramatic impact of that same resolution by getting in the way of the audience’s own reaction.
Fortunately, the play it frames, scene by scene each with its own distinct palette of colours, builds a delightful house of cards that, for all the unlikelihood of its precarious structure, elicits the audience’s goodwill in wishing for its ultimate security. Its success in doing so owes much to the strength of its performances. While the characters may be broadly drawn, and the situations they put themselves in (almost by definition) farcical, the principals allow the bruised human hearts to beat through their more mannered exteriors.
As the leads, Jessica Baglow turns on a sixpence with Phoebe Throssel’s fortunes, and Dario Coates is all the Hughs, both Laurie and Grant, as sometime suitor Captain Valentine. Less noticeable, but just as notable, Louisa-May Parker as Susan sketches her own lost hopes in no more than two brief phrases that pinpoint the heartbreak a layer beneath her eccentricity.
The particular bruise to Phoebe’s heart is not unlike that endured by Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion; the man she loved, taken from her by service, returns to find her changed by the cares of age. Her response, however, though hit upon by accident, owes considerably more to the Bunburying of Wilde than the fortitude of Austen. She tosses aside her schoolmistress’s cap, and throws herself into the role of Livvy, a younger, coquettish niece.
This version of herself, is, perhaps, not so very far away from the mediated persona of an Instagram profile, lending the period piece a contemporary resonance. Moreover, it is to Barrie’s credit that he allows Phoebe to revel in the license that the imposture of being Livvy affords her, as well as to resist her suitor’s insistence in idealising her as an English country garden, when she’d rather be something more free and, more wild. Or, possibly, more Wilde.
Mix in a measure of pantomime cross-dressing and some lovely business with a puppet schoolboy masochist, eager for the cane, and the overall effect is not unlike applying Blackadder’s pick and mix anarchy to the romantic comedy template.
While not quite the nation’s favourite, this well crafted revival is nevertheless a superior confection.
Photos by Sam Taylor