Earlier this year the Finborough Theatre spent a lot of time fulfilling the "new writing" half of their remit and now they're in the middle of a season dedicated to their other specialty, of "neglected classics." Often the plays Neil McPherson unearths under this banner were flops when first presented, sometimes by writers who went on to have later success but Quality Street
had rather more auspicious beginnings - a West End and Broadway hit, twice filmed. Until Peter Pan
came along it must have been J.M. Barrie's best-loved work as it even gave its name to the chocolates. I wonder if this tribute backfired as the chocolates became much more famous than the play, which hasn't been seen in London since 1946. Certainly Louise Hill's production makes me wonder why it vanished like that, not just because of the play itself but because of the widespread love for period dramas just like this. It certainly feels like an appropriate seasonal choice, just as the BBC likes to have new Cranford
or Lark Rise
It's 1805 and a roomful of self-confessed old maids are getting scandalised by a romantic novel and bitching about pretty young Phoebe (Claire Redcliffe) who, rumour has it, is about to be proposed to by Valentine Brown. Unfortunately everyone's misread the signs and in fact Mr Brown needs to speak to Phoebe to inform her he's off to the Napoleonic Wars. When he returns 10 years later she's fallen on hard times and herself become, voluntarily, one of those dowdy old maids, ineptly trying to run a school along with her sister Susan. Things take a farcical turn when a case of mistaken identity leads Phoebe to lead a double life, becoming glamorous again and taking on the identity of her imaginary niece, Livvy, a regular at the balls and chased by all the officers. Redcliffe pulls off this tricky role giving us essentially three different versions of Phoebe - the wide-eyed young girl, her defeated older self and her flirtatious alter-ego. She makes a good double act with Daisy Ashford as Susan, the sensible and proper older sister who's unfortunately prone to faux-pas. James Russell was last at this theatre playing an elephant
but he's equally convincing as a human, playing the dashing but sometimes thoughtless Mr Brown.
Written nearly a century after the action's set, the rights of women were still a major issue and there's a definite serious side to the frivolity - indeed the first half of the play often displays a melancholy side and the sisters' comically disastrous attempts to control their students betray the fact that ladies who needed to work could only do so in very particular fields, whether or not it was something they were remotely suited to. In a play which gives most of the roles to women (Tamzin Aitken, Hannah Boyde and Kate Cook as the "old maids," Zoe Thorne as a spoilt brat of a deb and especially Catherine Harvey as the housekeeper Phoebe is slightly afraid of all get their moment to shine) it's their problems that are mostly at the fore but Barrie shows a dark side in the men's stories as well - Brown returns from Waterloo with one less hand than he went out with. Apart from some of the character development being a bit shaky, it's such a beautifully-written play as these issues are always there but never at the expense of the humour which builds in both ridiculous situations and comic one-liners, perfectly timed - my face was sore from smiling so much. A quick mention to the great design as well - Mike Lees' lovely costumes and Alex Marker's clever set which seems to have found a way to double the tiny stage area.Quality Street
by J.M. Barrie is booking until the 22nd of December at the Finborough Theatre.