It’s a little-known fact that Quality Street chocolates – that staple of Christmas in the UK – is named after J.M. Barrie’s play from 1901 (before he wrote Peter Pan). A comical tale of love, identity and misunderstanding set during the Regency period, it was hugely popular right up until the 1940s but has rarely been seen onstage since. This lively, colourful revival by Northern Broadsides will hopefully buck that trend and spark more productions.
The story is strongly reminiscent of Jane Austen’s novels, with its gossiping old maids, flirting officers, sparkling heroine, and careful balance of comedy with unspoken love. The central premise of mistaken identity – that Phoebe Throssel successfully fools all around her by adopting an alter ego, the vivacious Miss Livvy, simply by removing her spinster cap and glasses – may seem ridiculous, but a crucial line is drawn between ridiculing the situation and the main characters. The love story between Phoebe and Captain Valentine Brown remains heartfelt, kept in tact by both the script and finely tuned comic performances from the entire cast.
Jessica Baglow excels in the role of the heroine, bringing a complex and remarkable character to life with energy and naturalism. Phoebe Throssel’s observations on ageing, love and propriety – and the double standards applied to men and women – are still relevant today, and her fight to recover her damaged self-esteem after ten years as a school teacher is particularly pertinent in current times, when anxiety and low confidence seem to be on the rise.
In this production, Quality Street is located in Halifax, which is both the location of the first factory and Northern Broadsides’ home. This allows the company to well and truly put their stamp on the play, not just with Yorkshire accents, but with an additional cast of Quality Street factory workers.
These characters – based on the production’s Creation Squad of real-life former Mackintosh employees – appear throughout, commenting on the action as they change the set in their white coats and red caps. It’s an addition that an adds an extra dimension of humour and bridges the gap between regency and contemporary England. However, their opening prologue does outstay its welcome and the epilogue – a post-show discussion between the two sets of characters – undercuts the mood created by the final scene.
Another modern touch is the staging of the ball scene, which opens the second act and functions as the turning point in the play’s action. Instead of ladies in pale muslin gowns dancing in ordered lines to violins, the audience is greeted by music with a beat, 70s disco-inspired dance moves and dresses in a dazzling rainbow of Quality Street wrapper colours. It’s surprising, irreverent and fun.
Quality Street is a welcome dose of theatrical escapism, drawing its audience into the Miss Throssels’ cosy blue and white room and plying them with humour and romance, and is as inviting as a freshly opened box of chocolates.★ ★ ★ ★