Phoebe Throssel (Emma Stephenson) and Susan (Daisy Watts)
The Maddermarket Theatre is one of the hidden gems of Norwich accessible only through a narrow footway or a gateway under a Medieval church. It is home to an enthusiastic and talented company that has a long and proud record of producing memorable theatre. The building itself offers some fascinating contrasts. The auditorium was originally built as Catholic chapel in 1794. It was converted by company founder Nugent Monck into a re-creation of an Elizabethan theatre in 1921 and retains the galleried layout built then with some small additions. The barrel vaulted ceiling gives the space an excellent acoustic. The bar and foyer are in contrast bold examples of a rather brutalist 1960s style of architecture.
The contrast in the spaces within this theatre gives a perfect setting for Jez Pike’s fascinating re-imaging of this classic J.M. Barrie play which allows us to contrast the views contemporary to 1901 when the play was first written with the rather more emancipated current views on propriety within relationships.
Barrie – most famed for creating Peter Pan – set Quality Street during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The tale is essentially about the progress of a romance between Phoebe Throssel (Emma Stephenson) and Valentine Brown (Steven Scase). Brown departs to join the army just as Phoebe confides in her sister Susan (Daisy Watts) that an engagement is expected soon. His departure coincides with a drastic loss of income to the two sisters, who are obliged to turn their home into a school for the gentry.
There is a ten year gap before Brown returns during which time Phoebe feels that she has turned into a dull old frump, no longer capable of turning young men’s heads. At a whim she decided to go to a ball as ‘Miss Livvy’ – a spirited recreation of the younger Phoebe – where she flirts with Brown who seems not to recognise who she really is.
Much of the play takes place in the ‘blue and white room’ – an elegant symbol of the confined lives of Victorian women. The window onto Quality Street allows observation both in and out of the room, and the sisters are acutely aware of the prying eyes of their many spinster friends and neighbours.
The acting throughout this play is first-class, with Phoebe and Valentine particularly well presented as the confused lovers who grow up before our eyes. Although the romance is at the heart of this play the dialogue between Phoebe and her sister Susan actually carries the bulk of the plot. Susan is resigned to spinsterhood from the start, it seems, whereas Phoebe wants more from life.
While the play appears initially to be set firmly in TV costume drama territory it slowly draws you in to a more compelling, intelligent and perceptive drama than you will ever see on Sunday evening telly. While the manners may be from a century ago the dilemmas and relationship and confidence struggles are much the same now and will hopefully encourage all of us to seize the chances the life presents to us to find our own happiness.
There are a number of humorous sub-plots and characters to keep our attention focused, particularly in the (for then) rather raucous setting of the ball in Act Three. Best keep your bottle of smelling salts or cordial handy in case of a fit of the vapours! All the characters but one are irredeemably middle class, but the exception, Patty the maid (Karen Bates) , more than makes up for the deficit of earthy realism with some suitably tart thoughts of her own.
This is an enjoyable production which once again shows that the Maddermarket Theatre should be your destination for an evening of classic theatre beautifully presented and acted. When Quality Street was first presented it gave its name (and characters) to the tin full of chocolates still sold today. This play has the same variety of delights within, but at much less risk to your waistline!
© Julian Swainson 2018
By J.M. Barrie
Re-imagined in a new version by Jez Pike
Friday 20 – Saturday 28 July 2018
7.30pm Mon-Sat & 2.30pm Sat 21 & Sat 28 March
Concessions available on best seats
All tickets £10 on opening night (Fri 20th) and ‘Madders Monday’ (Mon
Maddermarket Theatre, St John’s Alley, Norwich, NR2 1DR
This is an amateur production by arrangement with Nick Hern Books.
Find out more and book tickets: http://maddermarket.co.uk/production/view/492