I have spent a delightful evening meandering through Quality Street which has set up roots in Abingdon’s Unicorn Theatre until the evening of Saturday 17th March.
With an air of jovial whimsy, Studio Theatre Club transport the audience to Napoleonic Britain and J.M. Barrie’s tale of Phoebe Throssel, a beautiful and determined young lady who is quite taken with the physically dashing Valentine Brown. Sadly, Brown naively fails to recognise either his own feelings for Phoebe or hers for him, instead enlisting in the army, which keeps him away from the street for a decade. After a poor investment renders her and her elder sister, Susan, without the means to support a comfortable life, the heartbroken Phoebe is faced with no choice but to leave her carefree days in the past and set up a school. On Valentine’s return, Phoebe is slighted when he is clearly shocked that the years have not been kind to her, deeply mourning her own loss of youth. In a moment of mistaken identity Phoebe fools Valentine into believing she is Miss Livvy, her own younger, far more flirtatious (and entirely fictitious) niece, setting about unfolding a series of tricks and capers, liberally sprinkled with the lucid eloquence and wit of a woman scorned.
The ensemble cast of 12 are an absolute pleasure to watch thanks, in no small part, to the direction of Matt Kirk, and his choice to set the production in its original era. There’s a romantic quality to STC’s Quality Street, heightened by the crisp red and white uniforms worn by the soldiers, contrasting so sharply with the daintily demure dresses and bonnets adorning the ladies. It is little wonder that Phoebe finds herself freeing her much-admired ringlets to garner the attention of Captain Brown, who is nothing short of a strutting peacock by comparison! Susan’s beloved ‘blue and white room’ (in which many of the scenes take place) is artfully staged, with striped walls becoming more apparent as Phoebe, wearing a similarly banded frock, finds herself caged by the banality and stresses of work as a schoolmistress.
The action is very much lead by Phoebe (or her alter ego Livvy), and Debs McKenna breathes such credible life into the characters; her swinging emotions - from joy to frustration, envy to anger and grief to love - are both bright and energetic. Kat Steiner is amiably innocent as Susan Throssel and delivers some of the funniest lines in the play with a charming loyalty. Rory Morrison clearly enjoys the part of Valentine Brown, which shines through in his playful execution of the role. Supporting cast members are no less accomplished, with some new faces adding a distinctive dynamic to the performance. Rosie Collins as Fanny Willoughby is inquisitive, with impressively sustained eyelash fluttering, which couples perfectly with Kath Leighton’s vivid expressions of disapproval, and Henrietta Turnbull’s (Heather Brady’s) nosiness! Ben Morel-Allen is a first-rate, boyish Ensign Blades and Anne-Elizabeth Pozzar shows us an extremely convincing girlish ‘goose’ in her portrayal of Charlotte Parratt. Mina Katouzian also has a fun and diverse range as the bossy maid, Patty.
Lighting and sound design (by Jon Viner and Daniel Booth respectively) are notable in their restraint, both subtly contributing to the atmosphere without diverting the attention of the audience. I was particularly impressed with the hair design by Anna Sturrock; Phoebe’s ringlets were as enviably perfect as the text demands them to be, and some of the other characters also sported carefully constructed designs.
Toffee maker Harold Macintosh was so taken with the hit play that in 1936 he gave the name to his new chocolate assortment, and familiar characters can still be seen on the famous purple packaging. Don't miss the chance to see this performance: Studio Theatre Club’s Quality Street, is so sublimely sweet and satisfying to watch that one can easily see how the play could become such an inspiration!