First published in The Times, Monday February 24 2020
Halifax, the home of Northern Broadsides, is a fitting place from which to launch a revival of JM Barrie’s 1901 romantic comedy. The Quality Street factory, where the Purely Purple Ones and Strawberry Delights continue to be made, is a landmark in the town, and a poignant reminder that this now neglected play was once so popular that it inspired a line of chocolates.
The connection is referred to repeatedly and with a gleeful lack of restraint in this, Laurie Sansom’s first production as artistic director of the company. Characters appear in brightly coloured costumes, designed by Jessica Worrall, that glint and crackle like sweet wrappers. A chorus of modern-day factory workers sporadically interrupt the action, commenting on the performances and drawing parallels with their own romantic entanglements.
Pic: Sam Taylor
While this device provides an engaging frame to the story, it ultimately outstays its welcome, disrupting the show’s pace. At times the conceit feels clumsily bolted-on as a point of identification for a contemporary audience. There is in fact plenty of resonance in the tale of Phoebe Throssel (beautifully played here by Jessica Baglow), who has to fall back on her own resources when the dashing Valentine Brown, the suitor on whom she had pinned her romantic hopes (Dario Coates), enlists for the Napoleonic Wars, unwittingly leaving Phoebe and her sister Susan (Louisa-May Parker) in financial penury.
When Valentine returns a decade later, weathered by experience and minus a hand, he finds Phoebe running a school and resigned to spinsterhood. His arrival reignites something of her youthful vigour and passion, which finds expression through an alter ego, the Throssel sisters’ imaginary niece, “Livvy”.
Pic: Sam Taylor
Barrie’s script is an odd hybrid, spanning everything from the tender exploration of missed opportunities in Jane Austen’s Persuasion to Shakespeare’s comedies of mistaken identity and even door-slamming farce. Sansom delves into this pick’n’mix with gusto, creating a busy production that is frequently entertaining if tonally uneven. The sisters’ essential lack of agency is never explored in any meaningful way, but the performances of the leads rise above some of the play’s limitations. The affectionate relationship between the sisters is movingly depicted, while Baglow and Coates imbue their characters with a warmth and vitality that makes you root for them as lovers.
Touring to June 13. Northern-broadsides.co.uk