What an infuriating playwright is JM Barrie; one moment a hopeless, cloying Edwardian sentimentalist, the next a brilliantly waspish and radical social satirist. And both Barries are present in force in his rarely-performed 1901 Regency romance Quality Street, in its day such a colossal transatlantic success that it even gave its name to the famous brand of chocolates.
Quality Street, Pitlochry Festival Theatre 3stars
The truth is, though, that Liz Carruthers’s highly entertaining new Pitlochry production hardly seems to know what to do with the play’s odd combination of chocolate-box prettiness and radical feminism, as Barrie raises but also evades serious questions about male attitudes to women, as they become older and more empowered.
The story concerns the fate endured by Miss Phoebe and her sister after her none-too-bright suitor Valentine departs for the Napoleonic Wars, not knowing that his own poor financial advice has plunged the sisters into relative poverty. Ten years on, he returns to find pretty Phoebe much changed, in a spinster’s cap and spectacles, making a living as a schoolmistress; and if a strikingly intelligent and witty Fiona Wood has plenty to do in embodying both aspects of Phoebe, then an impressive Alan Mirren has an even tougher job in convincing us that Valentine has matured into a perfect romantic hero, and a man worthy of her love.
In the end – with the help of a strong supporting cast – they succeed well enough, in a two-hour entertainment that will provide audiences with some welcome light relief, this summer; but against the backdrop of Adrian Rees’s pretty cameo-like designs, it’s hard not to feel that there’s a serious and clever challenge to patriarchal attitudes, somewhere in this play, that’s not quite finding the full expression it deserves.
In repertoire until 12 October