Quality Street review at Festival Theatre, Pitlochry – ‘engaging revival of JM Barrie’s little-performed play’
In the opening minutes of this revival of JM Barrie’s little-performed 1901 romantic comedy, young Miss Phoebe Throssel (Fiona Wood) finds herself widowed to war without a drop of blood being spilled, as her intended Valentine Brown (Alan Mirren) arrives in her drawing room and his expected marriage proposal becomes instead a declaration that he intends to do his patriotic duty and join the war against Napoleon.
Ten years later Valentine returns, but Phoebe and her sister Susan (Camrie Palmer) have converted their home into a school for wayward children in order to pay the bills, and the hard-working schoolmistress feels her age next to the dashing war hero. “Why does 30 feel so much older than 29?” she gasps in frustration.
Exasperated, Phoebe lets her ringlets down and reinvents herself as her imaginary niece Livvy, recapturing her youthful vitality and becoming the toast of the wife-seeking officer classes, even as she must hide her identity from the local gossips who will see through her disguise.
Director Liz Carruthers manages to bring a sense of the amusingly contemporary to a tale as apparently old-fashioned as the chocolate box paintings which Adrian Rees has adorned his set with; in fact this ensemble play, an enduring hit before the Second World War and subsequently forgotten until the Finborough Theatre took it on in 2010, gave the chocolates their name.
The main thrust, of a woman finding completion in the arms of a man, is fairly mitigated by the way Wood invests Phoebe with a blossoming sense of freedom and possibility as her young alter-ego, and Mirren’s bullish Valentine responds with surprising respectfulness and honesty. In the end, the trad attitudes of Barrie’s time and the concerns of audiences in 2018 are delicately balanced out into a honed and amusing study of character.
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