Chocolate box town

A regency rom-com with themes that transcend time, JM Barrie’s Quality Street is being rebooted in the hometown of the famous confectionery

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“There are several reasons I was attracted to this project,” explains Laurie Sansom, director of Northern Broadsides’ new production of Quality Street. “But it was the local connection which initially made my ears prick up.”

Northern Broadsides, the theatre company founded by Barrie Rutter OBE in 1992, remains rooted in the Dean Clough Mill complex in Halifax, a former carpet factory now housing 150 small businesses and arts projects. The Yorkshire town also accommodates the Quality Street confectionery factory, a product actually named after the 1901 JM Barrie play that Sansom – also the company’s artistic director – is taking on.

“As a company we are well known across the north of England but we rarely shout about our Halifax origins and that’s something I really wanted to do,” he says. “And I also really wanted to find a comedy as I thought that currently people are looking for a good night out.”

With Jessica Baglow and Dario Coates in the lead roles of Phoebe Throssel and Valentine Brown respectively, Quality Street is, at heart, a British farce. Phoebe, during the opening act, is convinced Valentine, very much the gentleman around town, is going to propose to her. Instead he is called away to fight in the Napoleonic wars. Returning a decade later, he perceives that time and circumstance haven’t been kind toward his former love and the naked disappointment in his face makes her so angry she opts to dress as her younger self, flounce around theatrically and mock what this Captain expects from a vivacious young woman.

“There is a serious message but it’s done in a comic, upbeat way, a method which has always been part of the Northern Broadsides DNA,” says Sansom. “Phoebe is subverting expectations of what a young, romantic heroine should be, turning things back on Valentine to force him to examine his personal values. At the heart of the play are themes of lost love and an examination of the pressures put on people concerning personal appearance. Being something of a traditional farce, things naturally get far too complex for anyone to handle.”

Although remaining in its original Regency setting, there is a hint of modernity to this production. Through consulting staff currently employed at the Quality Street factory Sansom hopes to have ensured amusing themes relating to 21st century life are interwoven throughout Barrie’s 120-year-old framework.

“Everyone in the cast has buddied up with a worker from the factory and found out about things like romance on the shop floor, growing old disgracefully and attitudes toward missed opportunities,” the director explains. “We’re aiming for a modern feel to a play that remains rooted in Regency times, to have our cake and eat it, as it were.

“We’ve all gone through complex relationships and, hopefully, the play can take us back to these times and thoughts and experiences. The question we want audiences asking themselves is: ‘Will Phoebe and Valentine get together at the end?’ There are misunderstandings and self-imposed barriers to conquer but the enjoyment really unfolds when everyone realises this is all really a Regency rom-com with themes that transcend time.”

Quality Street is at the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax 14- 22 Feb, then touring (northern-broadsides.co.uk/quality-street)

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