Wednesday 17 May 2023

Review: Quality Street - Richmond Theatre, London


This review originally written for The Reviews Hub, I've included it here because the story is some Regency nostalgia - and I need to fill a gap before my Dr Johnson Reading Circle next week. 

Quality Street is a romantic farce set in the Regency period written by Peter Pan writer, J.M Barrie. It has been revived by the Northern Broadsides who have included a running commentary taken from reactions by genuine workers of the Quality Street chocolate factory, the sweets having been named after the play.

It tells the story of Phoebe Throssel who gives up hoping for marriage and becomes a spinster like her older sister Susan when her amor Valentine Brown leaves to join the Napoleonic Wars. Following Waterloo, Valentine returns but finds Phoebe tired and dull after ten years as a schoolmistress so she creates the persona of her spritely niece, Livvy to win him back. Farce ensues.

One of the most interesting elements of the play is how Barrie’s original script evokes a turn-of-the-century nostalgia for the Regency period, a nostalgia that the creator of the chocolate assortment, Mackintosh’s, used to sell sweets. This nostalgia is then wrapped in another layer of nostalgia for the 1970s and ‘80s, provided by the memories and comments originally given by the Mackintosh’s factory workers but played by the cast.

The play begins with these factory workers introducing themselves to the audience, talking about working at the chocolate factory before segueing into Barrie’s play. There’s never a very clear connection established between the two elements, beyond sharing a name and although the reminiscences are fairly charming, they slow down the progression of the play itself. The audience learns that the factory was known as a bit of a “knocking shop”, an interesting titbit, but not very relevant to the main plot. When they do talk about the play itself, their commentary on the action never strays very far from the inane.

This attempt to blend the Regency-set comedy and factory remembrance (it sells itself as a mix between “Bridgerton meets Inside the Factory”) is reflected in the set design. It consists of a house shape created from metal girders and back rooms screened off by industrial PVC strip curtains, which do invoke a factory but never look right as the Throssels’ cosy blue and white parlour. Though the little detail of knitted booties for the furniture legs is a cute one.

The most successful melding of Quality Street (play) and Quality Street (chocolate assortment) comes in the ball scene at the beginning of the second half, where the cast wear ballgowns with the distinctive colours of the famous sweets in a range of shiny fabrics. This is let down by some intentionally silly modern dance moves performed to a light tea-dance number with an inexplicably heavy ‘doof-doof’ beat. This song also plays distractingly in the background during a climactic talking scene.

There are some highlights in this production, however. The community of Quality Street has a warm, Cranford vibe, where the women are the true rulers of their community and the gossipy Willoughby sisters are feared by all. Paula Lane and Louisa-May Parker make a delightful pair of bickering but loveable sisters and Aron Julius is equal parts dashing and goofy as Valentine. A scene where he matter-of-factly solves the main farcical situation while Parker watches on in amazement is very funny. There are also some very comical and jaw-droppingly creepy puppets who portray the pupils in the Throssel sisters’ school and the scenes where the sisters cluelessly try to teach algebra and maintain their stern unflappable teacher-faces are very enjoyable.

At the end, when all the complications are cleared up, the factory workers are asked if the play says anything about love today. Their answer is, “Probably not.” There’s nothing wrong with this, a little escapism is always welcome but trying to meld the play with the history of the chocolate factory and connect it with the modern world, slows the play down and obscures its original brightness.

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