Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Theatre review: Hobson's Choice

Harold Brighouse's Hobson's Choice is apparently both a GCSE text and an old stalwart of regional rep. As a result it's the sort of play whose title I'm familiar with but I've never actually seen. Written in 1915 but set in Victorian Salford, it gets a further time shift in Nadia Fall's production in Regent's Park, which moves the action to the 1960s - probably as late as you could take its title character's attitudes. The affable Mark Benton plays against type as Henry Horatio Hobson, who's run his own shoe shop for years. But since the death of his wife, his daughters Maggie (Jodie McNee,) Alice (Nadia Clifford) and Vickey (Hannah Britland) have been running the place for no wages, while he spends his days in the local pub, the Moonraker's1. But business is booming, because in the basement workshop is young shoemaker Willie Mossop (Big Favourite Round These Parts Karl Davies) whose boots are so good all the wealthier ladies of Salford flock to the shop.

Brighouse throws in some overt King Lear references to his story of a man and his three daughters, but it's not Hobson himself who gives up his power: After he pronounces her an old maid at 30, the underappreciated Maggie is spurred on to claim Willie not just as a husband but as a business partner, and take his clientele elsewhere.

Hobson's Choice is billed as a comedy but it's a tragicomedy at best, its comic setpieces tempered with much darker moments. The ruthless takeover by the eldest daughter could make the play, particularly its ending, a satire on capitalism (I imagine productions during the '80s got some mileage out of her being called Maggie) but Hobson is such a complacent, lazy, alcoholic bully that it's hard to see him as anything less than deserving of his fate.

Benton is good but the show belongs to McNee and Davies. They pair up well and provide most of the evening's funny moments, she an unstoppable businesslike force, he endearingly dopey and carried along in her wake, right from the moment she announces to him that he's going to dump his fiancée and marry her instead. As she performs a Pygmalion on him it's fun to watch both his character become more strident, and their marriage built on business slowly acquire the genuine affection it lacked.

The Open Air Theatre's designs are always weirdly ambitious for a place whose stage gets regularly rained on, and here Ben Stones' set is a two-story building on a revolve, the period costumes feeling accurate without being a Swinging Sixties caricature. The production's been pretty rapturously received by the critics, which may be because they know the play and are impressed by how well Fall's version plays out. As someone new to it I have to take the whole thing together and say that although the production's strong with a lot of good performances, overall the piece is uneven. It's a solid rather than hugely memorable show, most worth seeing for Karl Davies' Willie.

Hobson's Choice by Harold Brighouse is booking until the 12th of July at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

1presumably the clientele is mostly enormous men with metal teeth, and their uncomfortably young-looking girlfriends


  1. You enjoyed writing that last line, didn't you?

    1. I nearly did a second footnote saying "if you thought I was going to resist that joke you clearly don't understand this blog."

    2. I've got to say, I was surprised you didn't go there.

    3. I was just saving it for the end, you can't go overboard on these things. Especially not with Bilbo's Dick coming up next month.