Review: Quality Street at Richmond Theatre ★★★☆☆

by Christopher Day

J. M. Barrie is best known for Peter Pan – but did you know that one of his earlier works, Quality Street, gave its name to those tins of chocolates we love to hand round at Christmas? Productions of that play have been few and far between since the Second World War, but Northern Broadsides and New Vic Theatre have come together with this impressive touring production.

It’s a warm-hearted regency comedy centred on a love story – we’re taken back to Napoleonic England, with Phoebe Throssel (Paula Lane) very much in love with Valentine Brown (Aron Julius). The characteristic misunderstandings are there almost from the start, with Phoebe expecting a proposal and instead being told that Valentine is heading off to fight.

In a fast-paced opening half, we speed through Valentine’s decade away and see him return from his military adventure. And after some initial confusion as to precisely how much time has passed, the play comes into its own with a case of mistaken identity, and the development of the love story.

While there are a couple of laugh-out-loud funny moments, this is not a play that will treat you to hilarity throughout – expect a gentler, softer humour. This is amplified by one of the major alterations made to the original play, with the introduction of a set of characters who worked at Halifax’s Quality Street chocolate factory in the twentieth century.

With their words taken verbatim from real recollections, they sit around gossiping at the opening and during scene changes – the memories and chatter that they share add to the sense of warmness that emanates from this production. They also add an interesting contemporary flourish, to go with the very modern dance moves exhibited by Phoebe at a ball.

The acting is mostly excellent, with Julius especially impressive in the more comic moments. Another standout is Gilly Tompkins, playing one of the Halifax workers and Patty, Phoebe’s maid. She’s cheeky, honest, always has her mistress’s best interests at heart, and somebody you’d want to be friends with.

Unfortunately, however, some major moments don’t resonate as they should. On a couple of key occasions, the reactions of the characters are not commensurate with the gravity of the information that has just been imparted to them – it makes the play feel almost rushed, with life-changing moments being brushed away as if they were nothing.

Thankfully, the pacing improves significantly in the second half and it enables the strong acting to shine. We grow to care for the characters, and get to enjoy their innocent misfortunes in the knowledge that happier days will come to them.