Disguises, deceptions and lessons in love are the stuff of many a Shakespeare play. And there are times, watching J.M. Barrie’s “Quality Street” (1901), when you have to remind yourself that it’s not “As You Like It” in Regency bonnets. The play hasn’t been performed in London since 1946, but director Louise Hill makes light of the play’s obscurity. It helps that this tale of a woman masquerading as her teenage niece has at its core the type of delicious playfulness that never ages.
It’s not instantly effective. Its world — of “quadrille parties,” ladylike ladies and chivalrous blades — is played initially for laughs, and takes some getting used to. This is a society in which a woman is over-the-hill at 30 — which fate befalls Phoebe Throssel (Claire Redcliffe) when, years after she last saw him, her sweetheart Valentine Brown (James Russell) returns from the Napoleonic Wars. Horrified that Valentine should think her worn out, Phoebe dresses as her younger self, only to be mistaken for her (non-existent) niece when she steps out at the Battle of Waterloo victory ball.
What interests Barrie — as in “Peter Pan” — is our youth-at-heart; the proximity we feel to the young people we used to be. In Phoebe’s case, middle-age is just a dowdier dress and a job as a hopeless schoolteacher. But when Valentine promises his love will make Phoebe younger, she disagrees: finally, the years cannot be shed as easily as the frumpy frock.
But Barrie’s sermon on ageing is barely perceptible beneath the frothy badinage as Phoebe/Livvy flirts with her redcoat suitors. As Shakespeare knew, there’s nothing more delightful in a theater than seeing people pretending to be someone else. Nothing, that is, except seeing the tables turned on the deceivers, as when Valentine discovers Livvy’s true identity and forces Phoebe to sustain the ruse regardless.
That it works so well is due largely to Redcliffe as our mettlesome heroine, who has nursed her joie de vivre silently through 10 lean years, and now can’t stop it springing into wild life. Opposite her, Russell has enough charisma to pull off a curiously withheld performance as her soldier beau. Full marks too to Daisy Ashford as Phoebe’s spinster sister Susan, one of whose barbed one-liners — “And how is Mary, Fanny? We have not seen her for several minutes” — is a mini-masterpiece of lethal politesse. One-hundred nine years old it may be, but in Hill’s revival, “Quality Street” has the skip of a teenager.