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Quality Street at Richmond Theatre

Nostalgia is alive and well. I can think of at least three productions doing the rounds which mine the inexhaustible resources of our great national obsession. Pride and Prejudice (sort of) takes us back to the Jane Austen era of the Regency. Home, I’m Darling homes in on the nostalgia mania that is the 1950s. And now Quality Street once again returns to the Regency (1810-1820 – so called because the Prince of Wales stepped in for his father George III who had gone mad) and the world of Beau Brummell, the Assembly Rooms at Bath with balls and dancing, presentation cards and the etiquette of social visits, not to mention the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo, Peterloo and John Nash’s town planning from Carlton House Terrace up Regent Street and the transformation of Marylebone Park into what we know as Regent’s Park.

Quality Street Ensemble Dance
Quality Street Ensemble Dance

The original Quality Street was written by J M Barrie in 1901 before he wrote Peter Pan. It’s a comedy about two sisters who set up a school for the children of what was known in the Regency as the Quality. That is the upper class. The play was a great success so much so that it was filmed twice. First in 1927 as a silent movie and then again in 1937 starring Katherine Hepburn no less. The success and popularity of the play and film prompted the Mackintosh chocolate factory in Halifax, in the depression era of the 1930s, to cash in on this nostalgia for all things Regency by launching Quality Street in Tins with bows and ribbons and featuring on the lid an image of Miss Sweetly and Major Quality. As if this level of palimpsest iteration is not enough to be getting on with, Northern Broadside and New Vic Theatre had the inspired idea of inviting actual workers at the factory to sit in on rehearsals of their version of the play. They were so taken with the comments and insights of the workers that they decided to bring them into the play by having a double narrative which makes a wonderful back-and-forth movement between the performance of the play and the comments of the workers. The effect is brilliantly successful. It’s as if Bridgerton were to meet the cast of Coronation Street.

Quality Street the play is a romantic comedy in the tradition of Sheridan’s The Rivals. But it is much deeper and more searching in its expose of Regency England. Sure it’s a comedy and there is much slapstick humour and stage business to enjoy but within those boundaries, it manages to speak volumes about the realities of everyday life. How it does so is fascinating and highly original. First, we have the commentary from the factory workers about the play. This serves to bring the play down to earth as it were. Their comments on the characters are deflationary and hard-headed. Secondly and most brilliantly, in my view, the casting (hats off to Sarah Hughes) undermines the whole nostalgia industry. The aim of that industry is to transport us to a world of white toffs speaking in cut-glass accents.

Quality Street presents us with an England of black people, disabled soldiers, aged servants, poor “old maid” school mistresses and because some of the cast are men playing women and vice versa the gender boundaries are wonderfully blurred. Bridgerton has of course done this and so does the current version of Great Expectations. It’s important for two reasons. First, because it’s accurate. The past was inhabited by black people, women, gay people, and the poor. Second, all the communities that make up our community of communities must feel part of the national conversation. Inclusive casting is a way to do just that.

I hope I’ve said enough about why Quality Street matters. As entertainment, it is first class. The cast, crew and creatives are superb. The acting is excellent. Aron Julius as the hero Valentine Brown is a Scouse Prince Charming with matinee idol looks to die for. A Toxteth Toff? Watch out for his spell-binding piece of stage business as he displays his bedside manner, he is a Dr and a soldier. And Paula Lane as the heroine Phoebe Throssel (and her alter ego Miss Live ) is outstanding. Indeed her portrayal of the sexually alluring Miss Livvy is enough to make a bishop put his foot through a stained glass window. It’s a mark of her skill that she plays both parts when most previous productions have divided the roles between two actors. There are strong performances from the rest of the team.

Louisa -May Parker as the older maiden spinster/sister/aunt is pitch perfect. Jamie Smelt is a cross between Benny Hill and the Pub Landlord in his three parts of Recruiting Sergeant / George/Spicer. Alicia McKenzie excels as the gossip and nosey parker Mary Willoughby as does Jelani D’ Aguilar as Fanny Willoughby/ Isabella/Sandra. Their costumes are exquisite and capture the historical contexts very well. The music and choreography likewise are a delight and the puppetry play within the play is tremendous. In short Quality Street is both a delightful escapist entertainment and a critical behind-the-scenes look at Regency England. Well worth a watch.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

From the writer of Peter Pan, this delicious farce was such a sensation in its day that it gave its name to the UK’s most loved chocolates.

Quality Street is at Richmond Theatre from Wednesday 12th April, 2023 to Saturday 15th April, 2023.

View all shows booking now at Richmond Theatre.

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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