Review: Quality Street (Viaduct Theatre and UK tour)

The show marks Laurie Sansom’s first as artistic director of Northern Broadsides

Jessica Baglow in Quality Street
Jessica Baglow in Quality Street
© Sam Taylor

Much has changed at the Viaduct Theatre. In the 27 years since Barrie Rutter started putting on Northern-accented Shakespeare in the vaults and tunnels of Dean Clough Mill, Northern Broadsides have gradually extended their range. Now further transformations have come, as Clough seeks to develop the Viaduct as a theatre outside Broadsides' productions and as Rutter has retired as artistic director. After an interregnum with associate director Conrad Nelson, a new regime has started under Laurie Sansom.

It's no easy task to follow in the footsteps of a man who defined the style of the company and Sansom very wisely opts for building on Broadsides' traditions while still being his own man. His production of J M Barrie's Quality Street is clearly not a Rutter show – Sansom knows that music and dance are part of the Broadsides experience, as is using the spaces and recesses that surround the acting area between the two sides of the audience.

The choice of play follows such previous successes as Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son and Harold Brighouse's The Game in reviving a once popular play that has virtually disappeared. Sansom also cleverly makes use of a Yorkshire – indeed, a Halifax – connection. Quality Street was a major West End hit in 1902, constantly revived until the Second World War, filmed in the 1930s and the inspiration for a new brand of chocolates in 1936, made by Mackintosh's of Halifax.

This must have seemed like serendipity on a grand scale and Sansom exploits it in a show that is inventive, farcical when it needs to be and sentimental when required – a jolly production style that fuses Jane Austen with pantomime. The only problem is that the play itself is not strong enough – it's not hard to understand why it has been 70 years since the last outing.

At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, sisters Phoebe and Susan Throssel live on Quality Street – Susan a self-defining old maid, Phoebe young, lively and with enough ringlets to charm the dashing, young Captain Valentine Brown. Both are convinced Valentine is about to propose to Phoebe when he arrives with a portentous announcement, but instead he tells them he has enlisted. They have lost most of their money thanks to his ill-considered advice, but are too ladylike to tell him. Years pass and by the time Valentine returns, Phoebe is aged and careworn from years of teaching. So she invents a young and flirtatious alter ego, Miss Livvie, goes to the ball and charms all the officers, except the captain who prefers the true beauty of Phoebe. The deception is wound up and the happy ending ensues.

And that's it. Barrie writes with some pertinent and sympathetic consideration of the role of women, there are nice touches of dry wit and some neatly constructed farce scenes, but Sansom understandably feels the need to supply some ballast. Five of the cast garbed as Mackintosh's employees provide an amusing 21st century commentary – well done and nicely integrated into the action – but this is one reason why this very slight play takes nearly three hours. Relevance again emerges in Nick Sagar's modern music and no opportunity is lost for the comedy of the grotesque – the gossipy young woman played by a tall gawky young chap, the school pupils portrayed as rampaging puppets and the absurdly over-the-top designs for the ladies' ball gowns.

Judging by audience reaction, Quality Street should prove a successful start to the Sansom era and deservedly so. Jessica Baglow is outstanding as Phoebe – comically switching from a ringlet beauty to a dowdy old teacher and back again – and finds the pathos and anger as the only character with genuine emotional depth. Louise-May Parker's flutterings as Susan and Dario Coates' smoothly poised diffidence as Valentine are in key with the production, and a stylish and versatile ensemble of six gives the play its due.